It turned out that I was invited out for dinner yesterday after all. It was interesting, I suppose, good in some ways and bad in others.
The bad: I was asked a lot of questions about my job and religious background. This is quite normal in frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) circles. I guess asking about a person’s background is normal in any situation where you meet new people, only the nature of Judaism as a way of life rather than simply a set of faith propositions means that childhood background is interwoven with religious connotations; within reason, you can make an educated guess about a person’s religious background by asking about their family (especially given the small, interwoven nature of the Jewish world), school, home town, and so on. As for my job, that attracts a lot of attention in the frum world, I guess because it’s not a ‘normal’ frum job (lawyer, accountant, doctor, Jewish shop owner etc.), so people ask a lot of questions to understand it.
The problem for me is that I hate being asked these questions, particularly by frum people. I get terrified that I will let slip some detail that will reveal me to be inadequate in some way, be it religiously or in terms of my mental health. So, I was upset to be forced to admit to only working part-time because of health reasons, just as I was upset to be forced to admit that I hadn’t looked in to whether I could find a minyan for Mincha (prayer quorum for the Afternoon service) in the university where I work (it actually didn’t occur to me to do it, but I’m reasonably happy davening (praying) quickly by myself rather than using my already-short lunch break (I only get forty-five minutes) to go somewhere to daven with a minyan when I need the break time for my mental health). Plus, these are small talk-type questions that typically bore autistic people like me. So for these reasons, I find these questions anxiety-provoking, and then the anxiety makes me speak incoherently or forget basic facts about myself and even get things wrong.
Perhaps because of this anxiety, I shook a lot at dinner. I don’t think anyone noticed, but I felt very self-conscious of it and was worried I was going to get food down my shirt, especially as there were no serviettes.
The conversation didn’t really rise about the small talk-ey, which frustrated and bored me a bit, plus some stuff was said that made me feel like I didn’t fit in in the frum world once again. The person next to me, who asked me a lot of questions, was quite happy to admit he had only become religious in the last few years, but he had now gone the whole hog (so to speak), was davening with a minyan three times a day, setting time aside for religious study with a chevruta (study partner) and so on and even though I knew a lot more than he did religiously, I felt that he was actually more dedicated to Judaism. Indeed, my host (who has been frum all his life) and this person rhapsodised at one point about how great a frum life is, how much joy and meaning it brings even the most trivial aspects of one’s life and so on. I can’t share these feelings at all. While it is not quite true that I have no joy or meaning in my Jewish life, I have very little, because of depression, social anxiety and consequent social isolation.
It didn’t help that some things were said about non-Jews that made me feel uncomfortable. Likewise the conversation about the length of time one should date before becoming engaged, five or even three dates being deemed acceptable (“That covers the fundamentals; the rest you can work out on the way.”) As I dated my first girlfriend for eight or nine months before realising she wasn’t right for me, and dated E. for two months, despite in both cases what seem in retrospect a number of big red flags, I am glad I was not under social pressure to propose quickly. I worry a bit about getting set up with a very frum woman in the future and being expected to decide quickly whether to propose to her, albeit that with a very frum woman it would be more likely that I was signalling red flags to her than the other way around, given, that my red flags in the past have related to my girlfriends not being frum enough for me, or still being on the rebound from previous relationships. It is probably true, as some of my friends say, that if you’re a conformist member of a fairly conformist sub-culture, it’s relatively easy to find a compatible mate, but if you are unusual in some way, it becomes much harder. I’m hoping that if I meet the right person, it will be very obvious, but as I thought I was sure to marry both my exes, I worry that it won’t be, or if it is, I won’t trust my feelings (I’m great at overthinking).
On the plus side, despite my discomfort at times, I stayed for about four and a half hours (long winter Shabbat (Sabbath) meals…) before the noise and social interactions got too much for me and I made an excuse and left. I did participate in the conversation a bit, even if it was generally only when other people spoke to me and I didn’t always feel comfortable doing so. I did answer an obscure question on the week’s Torah portion that was asked at the table correctly even though no one else could, which I think earned me brownie points. I enjoyed seeing my host’s young children at play, even if their volume and (as the evening went on) their fights drained me.
Perhaps most importantly, I mostly avoided feeling envious of my host and his family situation or the newly-wed couple there, although it helped that there were other unmarried men there, so I didn’t feel totally out of place. (I’m assuming that my host is sufficiently religious that he wouldn’t invite single men and single women to the same meal, an attitude that I find counter-productive, but as I can’t imagine ever talking to a woman at such a meal, let alone ending up asking her out, the point is rather academic.)
I came away reasonably happy and proud of myself, but also thoroughly drained and thinking of the old Modern Orthodox saying about, “The people I can pray with, I can’t talk to and the people I can talk to, I can’t pray with.”
I came home and chatted to my parents for another half an hour, but after all this interaction I was somewhat agitated and on edge and I needed time to read and calm down, but I spent a lot of time pacing around and thinking about the evening and about other things. I eventually got to bed around 1.00am.
Today, unsurprisingly, has been a draining day. I managed to go to shul for my shiur (Talmud class) and Ma’ariv (the Evening service), but have done little else. Today’s social embarrassment was being the only person who had to ask what the Mishnaic Hebrew word for ‘sex’ was in shiur, which I think the assistant rabbi would rather not have had to explain. I have been feeling very drained, despite eleven hours sleep last night and half an hour this afternoon. I really just wanted to vegetate in front of the TV this evening, but I had things to do especially as a chunk of tomorrow will be taken up with what promises to be a long and boring evening meeting at shul about choosing a new rabbi, which I feel obliged to attend as I was specifically asked to do so to give the perspective of single people (because all single people are the same… if anything I should be representing the neurodivergent and mentally ill, although I’m not quite sure how autism or depression would practically affect my choice of rabbi, nor am I aware if there are any other people like me in the community).