I’ve often written about my feelings of having a fractured identity.  It’s like there are parts of my life that don’t go together.  Being geeky and a Doctor Who fan doesn’t fit terribly well with being a frum (religious Orthodox) Jew, particularly in a somewhat Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) community that isn’t always a good fit for me in itself.  And so far my attempts at paid employment have not fitted terribly well with my mental health issues and borderline autism, while identifying as autistic makes me feel a fraud, given that two assessments have ended with my being classified as neurotypical, but with a lot of autistic symptoms (but, of course, I can’t access help for those symptoms because I don’t have the appropriate diagnosis).

I started this blog thinking it would be a Jewish blog about mental health, but it turned out to be a mental health blog with Jewish overtones (and Hebrew/Yiddish vocabulary).  My assumption was that most of my readers would be Jews with mental health issues, but so far as I can tell that isn’t the case.  Most of my readers are non-Jews with mental health issues or autism (I didn’t even expect to blog much about autism, given my non-diagnosis).

It’s confusing to know who I am sometimes.  A lot of the time, really.  Maybe that’s why I like being with young children and want a pet (more on both of those things below); young children and animals just accept you as you are without feeling the need to stick a label on you or force your square pegs into their round holes.

(Although I’m aware that the person who labels and forces me the most is myself.)

Working my way backwards through things that happened to me during and after Shabbat, I’ve started another job application, for a cataloguing role.  Good pay, but only an eight month contract.  I’ve applied, even though I feel very negative about my ability to do any job competently at the moment.  The online application form is really badly designed and annoying.  Actually, I can feel my anxiety level rising as I fill the form in.  This is due to my anxiety about coping with work, not the badly designed form, although that doesn’t help.  I’m procrastinating a lot, again out of anxiety; it took an hour and a half just to fill in basic details about my qualifications and previous employment because I keep getting distracted because I don’t want to focus on it.

Someone who lives in our road gave me a lift home from shul (synagogue) tonight.  I accepted because it was pouring with rain.  It was awkward, though.  He had music on very loud and I struggled to hear what he was saying.  I don’t know how much of that was autistic sensory sensitivity, how much was social anxiety (when I’m socially anxious I get so caught up in my anxious thoughts that I don’t take in what the other person is saying) and how much was just that the music was very loud.  I suppose I could have asked him to turn it down, but it honestly didn’t occur to me.  He saw I had a Gemarah (volume of Talmud) with me (because I’d gone to Talmud shiur (class) before shul) and asked what I was learning (Orthodox Jews always talk of “learning” Torah rather than “studying,” a habit that irritates me no end).  He asked which perek (chapter) I was up to and I struggled to answer, as I had noted my progress more by page number and, in any case, I’m struggling to keep up with the shul’s weekly Talmud study programme and am only vaguely aware of what I’m studying (admittedly I understand aggadata (the non-legal part of the Talmud) more than halakhah (the legal part)).  I couldn’t remember the chapter names at all (the chapters are always named after the first two or three words of the chapter) and felt rather stupid, as I generally seem to end up feeling when I talk to people I don’t know well.  This is why I usually try to avoid being given lifts, because I don’t like being trapped in a conversation with someone.

Our shul, like most shuls in the UK, has volunteer security (sadly, the risk of attack is very high and the shooting in Pittsburgh has just reinforced this).  I had asked to be taken off the security rota for health reasons.  My depression and social anxiety mean that I haven’t made it to shul for a morning service for a long time.  I haven’t specified what my health reasons are though.  I didn’t realise that I was supposed to be on duty this morning.  I don’t know if I wasn’t told or if I just deleted the email without reading it because I thought I was not on the rota.  At any rate, in the evening I was told that I had missed my slot.  They weren’t angry about it, but I felt bad, because I don’t like to let people down and also because I think I’m going to have to open up more about the nature of my health issues and say that just because I can make it to shul for Shabbat (Sabbath) evening services, doesn’t mean that they can assume I am well enough to make it for morning services.  I still struggle to tell people about my issues, though, even after all these years.  It’s hard to tell why.  I guess I worry how people will react and I suppose I feel weak and useless for still being depressed after fifteen or twenty years.  I feel that I should have got over it by now.  Maybe that’s why I’m desperate for an autism diagnosis, because then I’ll have something that I won’t need to feel guilty for not being able to change because it’s not something you can cure.  Or maybe I just want to pile up as many diagnoses as possible to justify why I’m not still functioning properly after all this time and treatment.

I feel the same reticence with job applications.  Diversity rules mean employers have to ask if you have medical issues requiring “reasonable adjustment” to do a job, but I never mention the depression because I’m worried they won’t employ me, even though that’s illegal.

Over Shabbat dinner my parents were encouraging me to become a primary school kodesh (Jewish studies) teacher.  They’re trying to be helpful, but I can’t really see myself doing that.  They say I’m gifted with children, but I find that hard to believe.  I enjoy being with young children (pre-teen), but I get scared that I’m going to accidentally hurt them or let them hurt themselves somehow (this is probably pure O OCD) and I can’t see myself handling a class of thirty children.  I can see that teaching would be fulfilling, though, and teaching kodesh would mean working in a Jewish school, which would mean I wouldn’t have to worry about having time off for Jewish festivals and Friday afternoons in the winter, when Shabbat (the Sabbath) starts mid-afternoon.  However, I feel I need more experience around children before I make a decision that big, plus I’m not happy about retraining – teacher training, but I’d also have to brush up my Hebrew, particularly my grammar (modern Hebrew and biblical Hebrew have different verb conjugations and I get confused between the two, inasmuch as I can remember either).  I also suspect that I would have difficulty getting accepted as a kodesh teacher, given that I never went to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) as most Orthodox Jewish men do for at least a year.

Going to yeshiva is a big thing for Jewish men.  People form their intellectual out look, meet friends and find role models, but, more than that, in the frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) world people will, rightly or wrongly, read a lot into a person’s choice of yeshiva: their religious outlook (how modern or fundamentalist), their politics (how Zionist), even I think their personality type.  Who a person gets set up with on dates is based a lot on one’s choice of yeshiva or sem (girls’ religious seminary).  If you go to Gush or Mir or YU, people make assumptions about you.

Of course, I know deep down that I would probably have had a lousy time at yeshiva.  I struggle to study Talmud and even in a modern yeshiva that wasn’t opposed to Western culture, there would have been little time for secular interests, certainly not Doctor Who.  Plus the style of study in a yeshivaBatei Midrash (study halls) of hundreds of pairs of students loudly arguing about texts is not good for someone either autistic or socially anxious.  And I wasn’t even that frum when I was old enough to go (which of course is one reason I didn’t go), although I suppose had I not been depressed when I finished at university, I might have gone for yeshiva for a while as some of my peers at Oxford did.

It’s funny, actually.  Although not going to yeshiva has had a huge effect on my life (or at least has convinced me that it’s had a huge negative effect on my life, which may not be the same thing), the actual studies are not really what I regret missing out on.  It’s actually spending time with holy people, great talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars), to learn from their characters.  This is the envy I have when someone says that they knew rabbi so-and-so at yeshiva.  I think a lot about what it would be like to meet one of my heroes from Jewish history.  The answer, I suppose, is that I would be too shy to talk.

On a related note, someone whose blog I read is struggling with religious matters (it’s not fair for me to go into details here and they aren’t really relevant), which reminded me of when I had a lot of religious questions, earlier in my depression and felt like I could lose my faith.  I can’t remember how it ended; probably there wasn’t a day when I woke up and said I didn’t have any major doubts.  I found some answers, but mostly I think I found Jewish religious existentialism, although it was a long time before I found a philosophical name to put to specific Jewish teachers whose writings made sense to me, and that helped reframe the question.

Religious existentialism teaches that doubt and questioning are part of life and that the search for answers is the religious life, not something you go through to become religious.  I realised that ‘proof’ is not how real human beings live their lives, that we base our lives on experience and human interactions, not abstract reasoning (although this is hard for someone who has difficulty with social interactions).  I still struggle with certain passages in Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) and things like the problem of suffering or biblical archaeology, but I realised that the God of my religious heroes, the God of Hillel and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and the Kotzker Rebbe – is a loving God because a violent, abusive God would not have compassionate, just and loving followers.  Any questions I had came to seem less important to me than trying to be a good Jew like my great ancestors.  I’m not sure if this makes sense to anyone else. I think in matters of personal philosophy, everyone has to find their own answers, and the answer that satisfies one person won’t satisfy another (which is quite existentialist in itself).  I suppose what I’m saying is that my Yiddishkeit (Jewish-ness) is bound up with the history of my people and the example of great tzaddikim (holy people) much more than abstract philosophical reasoning or the details of texts (which is very Jewish).

I suppose the big question is why, if I’ve learnt to live with doubt, uncertainty and big questions in my religious life, and to some extent in my political life (I don’t really affiliate with any party any more), why do I struggle so much with doubt in my personal life: doubts whether I am autistic, doubts about my career, doubts about relationships and marriage, doubts above all about whether I’m a good person.  Really it’s more like certainty that I’m not a good person, even though lots of people have told me otherwise.

Some of it is low self-esteem and consciousness of the way that my mental health issues sometimes result in my acting in a way that I don’t agree with and would not do if I was not undergoing stress of some kind.  Some of it is what I said before about not fitting in.  I don’t feel that I fit in to any of the communities I find myself on the fringes of.  I don’t feel a fully religious Jew because of my geeky Doctor Who fannishness, but sometimes I don’t feel that I belong in the fan community, which has a lot of vocal militant atheists.  Plus the laws of Shabbat and kashrut (dietary laws) make interacting with non-Jews difficult.  I won’t go to conventions on a Saturday and going anywhere with food is problematic (a problem at my depression group too, where I can’t go to the more social meetings, which are on Saturdays and often involve food).  Although the main thing keeping me from Doctor Who conventions is social anxiety.

On an unrelated note, I spoke to my parents about getting guinea pigs.  My Dad felt I should go to a pet shop first and check I’m OK handling them, which makes sense.  My Mum was worried that I would be too depressed to care for pets or would neglect my job hunting if I was caring for them, which seemed a bit of a remote possibility.  I’m not sure if she’s completely happy with the idea.  Then again, I’m not sure how happy she needs to be, given that the guinea pigs would be in my room.  I probably do care too much about what my family think of me sometimes e.g. part of the reason I gave up on online dating was that my sister was so opposed to me doing it.  For what it’s worth, my rabbi mentor was really enthusiastic about my buying a pet and I trust his judgement on most things.

I suppose I just worry that my Mum might be right and I won’t be able to look after a pet.  I mean, with most things (dating, work etc.) my parents say I have certain abilities, but I find it hard to accept.  Here, Mum is suggesting that I might not be able to do this, so logically I should have absolutely no confidence in my ability, which makes me wonder if this is just a silly idea.  We’ve never had pets other than goldfish (I think my Dad had a budgie as a young child), so I have no idea how I would react to pets, whether I could care for them or what they would do for my mood.  I hope they would make me feel better, but they might not.

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4 thoughts on “Jewish and Whoish

  1. I may be misinterpreting, but the Orthodox Jewish community sounds quite… competitive maybe isn’t the right word, but specific in expectations that people must meet. I’m curious if that’s something that’s generalized to some extent or if it’s more about the filter of your illness(es).

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    1. It feels pretty conformist to me. I’m not sure if that’s how everyone feels, but I’ve encountered other people online who also feel marginalised, except they’re usually angry rather than self-critical and either try and change things or leave.

      That said, it could be that I perceive things to be more conformist than they are through the filter of my depression and social anxiety. I do think it is objectively more conformist than Western society in general, though. I think that’s something I’ve come across reading more sociological things about the community. Individualism is seen as less important than in Western society, while being part of a community is seen as more important.

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  2. Being a Jewish studies teacher might be exactly the right fit. I would think that there would be great satisfaction in making a difference in kids’ lives.

    Interesting to read about your experience with doubt. It can be a pretty miserable thing to work through and come to some place of peace. Jewish religious existentialism is a new term to me, so I’ll be looking that up.

    I think handling the guinea pigs sounds like a good idea. It’ll probably help you know if you find them cute, fun, affectionate, or whatever. I’d watch lots of videos about guinea pigs, too. If you find yourself really, really wanting one, that’ll probably help clarify things. Even if your parents don’t agree with your having a pet, you could always go to an animal shelter and volunteer to socialize the animals by holding them and otherwise spending time with them. Maybe if your parents find you really are enjoying it, they’ll be more open to the idea of adopting one.

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