(This is really a continuation of my last post with added thoughts from the last few hours.)
I managed to get to the shiur (religious class) at the London School of Jewish Studies this evening, despite some social anxiety. The class was interesting and despite my problems with concentration at the moment just flew by; I didn’t look at my watch once in an hour and a half. Much of it was familiar to me, but I learnt some things and it was good to hear Torah that was coming from a slightly different perspective to what I’m used to hearing at shul (synagogue) and, one closer to my personal hashkafa (religious philosophy).
The audience was a bit depressing, though. Out of maybe sixty or seventy people (I’m bad at estimating numbers) there were three or four people roughly my age; everyone else was my parents’ generation or older. I think that’s a fairly accurate reflection of Modern Orthodoxy in this country. The moderate Modern/Centrist Orthodoxy represented by the United Synagogue is polarising; some are becoming Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) (which I guess is what I have done, even if for practical rather than ideological reasons); the rest are just leaving – either leaving Judaism entirely or leaving Orthodoxy for Progressive Judaism or, more usually I think, simply not joining any kind of organised community. All of which makes me worry about how I can meet people with a similar hashkafa to make friends and maybe to get married (one day, maybe, perhaps).
On my previous post, Ashley Leia suggested I was mistaken in complaining of antisemitism in this week’s Doctor Who, so I should probably clarify that I wasn’t suggesting the writers are consciously antisemitic, merely that they used a trope that has traditionally been used by Christian antisemitic (or anti-Jewish, if you want to split hairs over the difference between antisemitism and anti-Judaism) polemicists to attack Judaism (presenting Judaism as a religion of justice or even vengeance as against Christianity as a religion of love, even though Christianity’s commandments of love are quotations from Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament)). This was unfortunate, particularly in a series that has trumpeted its own commitment to diversity, doubly so in the second episode this series to portray organised religion as primarily a force for division and persecution with few positive points. It increasingly, uncomfortably, feels to me like “diversity” is often circumscribed (in Doctor Who and in Western culture in general) and that cultures that are truly alien to the writers’ (and most of the audience’s) worldviews, that is religious and traditional cultures, are met with criticism rather than acceptance, something that is only applied to “safe” cultures that do not threaten postmodern liberal values. As Alan Verskin put it in a recent review in The Jewish Review of Books “Tolerating a culture because it is no different from your own is not a good test of toleration.”
The entirety of Verskin’s review, of a recent children’s fantasy novel dealing with Medieval Jewish history, may be of interest to some readers here, to people interested in fantasy and especially in diversity issues in fantastic and historical fiction. Verskin also talks about realising “how remarkably few Jewish characters there are in books that are not expressly made and marketed for Jewish children (the exception being Holocaust literature, which, of course, is a different matter).” I would say that if you are looking for specifically religious Jewish characters (not necessarily Orthodox, but with some meaningful connection to Jewish tradition, texts and practice), they are almost non-existent, whether in children’s fiction or adult fiction and whatever the medium, even in stories written by Jews. Many years ago I read the Jewish science fiction and fantasy anthologies Wandering Stars and More Wandering Stars; the engagement with Jewish texts, traditions and substantive culture (not necessarily religious culture, but more than the odd Yiddishism or bagel) was limited in most of the stories, many of which saw Judaism as defined by antisemitism as much as by Jews and their culture (cf. Jean-Paul Sartre).
The main exceptions are books, film and TV from Israel, which, by their nature often have limited impact in other countries, both due to the language barrier and the fact that culture from small countries often struggles to penetrate foreign markets. Sometimes one can find translated books or subtitled films, but it is not always possible.
I used to think that I didn’t need to see fictional characters who reflect my life experiences and thoughts, but lately I have found (partly thanks to all the talk of diversity in Western culture) that I do. In the absence of figures like me, religious Jewish figures, I find myself drawn either to surrogates (I have alluded in the past to the article in European Judaism that the Doctor from Doctor Who, despite being an alien time-traveller, is in fact the most positively-portrayed Jew on British television, at least symbolically speaking) or to biblical, Midrashic or rabbinic figures.
There is definitely a danger in taking prophets and tzaddikim (saintly people), whether ancient or more modern, as my heroes, especially for someone such as myself with a poor sense of self and a perhaps permeable boundary between the real and the imaginary, not to mention a psyche given to extreme self-criticism, but with occasional counter-veiling moments of delusions of grandeur. In particular, I look for figures who can model Jewish observance alongside mental health issues or neurodivergent traits. I have already spoken a few times about the eighteenth and nineteenth century religious leaders, Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav and the Kotzker Rebbe and their importance for me as figures who combined active religious life with bouts of extreme (probably clinical) depression, self-criticism and/or withdrawal thus providing some kind of model for my own attempts at building a religious life despite my mental health issues. Perhaps I will try to explore some of these role models and mentors in future posts.