I’m a bit torn about staying up late writing this. I wanted to get to bed early because the clocks go forward, so I’ll lose an hour of sleep, plus I have to be up early tomorrow for volunteering. However, I slept about twelve hours last night and dozed for another two this afternoon so I’m far too wide awake. My Mum said I didn’t do much on Friday, so why was I so lethargic today? I think I’m just burnt out from a busy and emotionally-draining week. Autism + depression + work stress + social interactions (at work and at depression group) = exhaustion. I missed shul (synagogue) this morning through being too tired to get up, rather than too socially anxious, which seems like an improvement, weirdly.
I do feel rather lost at the moment. It feels that my life has… well, I can’t say “unravelled” as it wasn’t very ravelled in the first place. I just feel I don’t know what I should be doing about my career and I don’t feel at all comfortable with my religious life, feeling I should be more involved in prayer and Torah study and pursuing meaning in ritual and prayer, while at the same time I feel isolated in the frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) community and unable to fit in (more on that in a minute). I struggle socially and don’t even know what I can do about that or what I even want to do. I’ve given up on dating in the near future. Realistically, I fear it could take me years to sort out my career and only then could I think about dating, which could have a knock on effect on whether I can have children, given that I can’t see myself marrying someone ten years younger than me. I guess the bottom line in all these areas, career, Judaism, social life and dating, is that I don’t even know what I want or even how to find out what I want, let alone how I can get it.
And then on top of all this comes the start of a month of pre-Pesach stress and hoping that Pesach and its extra-strict dietary laws doesn’t set off my religious OCD again. To be fair, last year I had just one bad twenty-four hour period (split over two calendar days) and whereas for the last few years I’ve spent all year worrying about Pesach and writing long lists of (mostly OCD) questions to ask my rabbi, this year I have not really had any of that, with only a few questions to ask, mostly relatively small points of clarification. So that’s all good.
What I wanted to write about, while I don’t feel tired, is something interesting that happened at work this week. I was sorting through some piles of “little magazines,” which are magazines, mostly about art, literature and/or politics (especially politics), produced cheaply and somewhat amateurishly for distribution to like-minded individuals, with content usually too iconoclastic and extreme to sell to established journals. As a Doctor Who fan, it struck me that they were basically fanzines, but directed at artists or political obsessives/revolutionaries.
Looking in one radical feminist magazine, Jewish terms in a poem caught my eye. It was about the author’s fascination with Hasidic Judaism and her feeling that she, as a woman, lesbian and feminist, could never be accepted by these religious thinkers that she admired. Reading to the end of the poem, I saw that it was written by a female Reform rabbi I knew of. I don’t think I ever met her, but in my first job, at a non-Orthodox rabbinical seminary, I spent some considerable time cataloguing part of her library, which she donated to the seminary after her death. I was always intrigued and intimidated by her, intrigued because of the unusual mixture of radical feminist and traditionalist Orthodox material (or at least material about traditionalist Orthodoxy) in her collection, intimidated because I felt she would have no time for a conservative (in multiple ways), Orthodox person like me and because the general consensus among staff and students in the college (who all adored her) seemed to be that she didn’t suffer fools gladly, and whenever I meet someone like that, I worry that I come across as rather a fool. (As an aside, I think “doesn’t suffer fools gladly” is a stupid phrase. Is there anyone who wakes up in the morning thinking, “I hope I have to suffer some fools today, as I’d certainly be so glad to do so!”)
The poem, then, rather took me by surprise, but perhaps it shouldn’t have done. The clue, I suppose, was in her library, which, as I say, was filled with radical feminist books, but also with books on Hasidic Judaism (a form of Orthodox Judaism that stresses joy and love and ecstatic prayer) and the Mitnagedim (the opponents of Hasidism, but still very Orthodox, stressing Torah study, particularly legalistic Talmudic study rather than prayer as the centre of Judaism).
It showed me another side of her, something I hadn’t really suspected. I knew from her books and what her colleagues and students said about her that she was fiercely intelligent, intellectual and strong-willed. Also religious, in the progressive Jewish way that tends to be rather more political than Orthodox Judaism. Maybe angry, again mainly in a political way. But I hadn’t really expected to see vulnerability. I expected her to be out and proud in her beliefs and scornful of those who didn’t accept them. The desire for acceptance and the feeling of rejection and isolation took me by surprise.
An article in the same magazine by a different author dealt with her feelings on having to defend Judaism and Zionism among left-wing feminists. Taken together, the poem and the article seemed to sum up my feelings of wanting to be accepted by the frum (Orthodox Jewish) world and also wanting to be accepted in a more counter-cultural world (in my case Doctor Who fandom rather than radical feminist circles), but not conforming to expectations of behaviour and views in either.
It made me wonder if everyone feels that they are on the fringe of something. Do lots of frum people feel that they’re on the fringe of Judaism? Most of the people I know who feel like this are either converts (who feel they aren’t accepted by people born Jewish) and people with non-conventional political views (particularly in the US, where Jews tend to be very party-political: progressive (as in non-Orthodox) Jews are Democrats and Orthodox Jews tend to be Republicans, with anti-Trump Orthodox Jews feeling beleaguered). I don’t really know many people who feel isolated because of atypical cultural interests and neurodivergent trouble with social interactions in general.
In reality, probably not everyone feels like this. Some people seem happy alone and some people seem to be in the thick of things (whatever type of social group ‘it’ is) and happy with that. But clearly other people do share my feeling that I can never be accepted by the people that I want to be accepted by, perhaps even the feeling of being torn between two worlds, neither of which I fear will really accept me.