Mid-afternoon: There’s not a lot to say today. Things have been continuing as they have been for the last week or so: I’m OK much of the time, but then suddenly my mood tanks and I have strong depression or (more usually) anxiety. My anxiety is a mixture of religious OCD anxiety about the laws of Pesach (Passover), social anxiety about going to my shul’s (synagogue’s) weekday premises, which I haven’t been to much, and some kind of anxiety (I’m not quite sure what) about dating. In the meantime, I’ve helped my parents with Pesach preparations. That’s about it, really.
Evening: I wrote that paragraph above mid-afternoon, when I thought I would not have much to say today and just wanted to say that I’m coping. However, I just had a stressful experience. The prohibition on owning chametz (leavened bread and its derivatives) on Pesach is so severe, that religious Jews take a belt and braces approach: we destroy trivial amounts (usually by burning); larger amounts are sold to a non-Jew for the duration of the festival (it’s a binding sale and the non-Jew is under no obligation to sell it back afterwards, although the reality is that 99.99999% of the time they do as a matter of course) and, just in case we’ve missed anything, we declare any chametz that we own that is not destroyed or sold to be legally ownerless. (I might write a post over Pesach about why we go to this extreme for a bit of bread, but I haven’t got time tonight. Just accept it as another crazy thing Jews do.)
Today I sold my chametz or rather, gave my rabbi power of attorney to sell it on Friday morning. I could feel my anxiety building in the afternoon. I knew I was going to have to go to my shul‘s weekday premises and I felt uncomfortable and anxious about it. I just haven’t been there enough to feel comfortable in the building, which is probably an autism familiarity thing as much as anything. I was worried about doing the wrong thing or saying the wrong thing. The anxiety was stronger for not being well-defined. I just felt that I would do something wrong.
I got locked out when I arrived there, which was unfortunate. I thought I knew the door code, but I didn’t. Then the assistant rabbi said that he didn’t usually see me here. It was an innocuous comment, but just made me feel that I’m being judged for not going to shul enough. I felt very socially anxious during the afternoon and evening prayers. There was then a long wait while the rabbi saw other people, during which my anxiety rose further. I felt that I was going to say something wrong or the rabbi would judge me badly or think I was doing something sinful. Of course, none of these things happened, but I did shake when I signed the document to give him power of attorney. I walked home again feeling very shaken, physically shaken, and having OCD thoughts about having done things “wrongly”.
The positive thing to have come out of this is that I think I have an idea of why I struggle in the frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) community. My Jewish identity is very strong and positive, and I see my Judaism as my most important identity, much more so than being a Doctor Who fan, autistic, depressed, an Oxonian or anything else. Yet I find it so hard to interact with other frum Jews. Low blood sugar, an unfamiliar setting (difficult with autism) and social anxiety today probably didn’t help things, but I think a lot of it goes back to my autism.
I have mentioned before that the reason I think my autism went undiagnosed for so long is because I have developed mental ‘algorithms’ for dealing with social situations. I have one for eye contact and body language, one for making small talk and so on. But with frum people, the algorithms become much more complex. I need to factor in not saying anything that seems too secular and working out what “too secular” is (sometimes very frum people make jokes or comments that I would never dream of trying to get away with, which just confuses me). I need to process words from foreign languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish) that I may not be familiar with and which may be pronounced differently to how I would pronounce them (people in my shul tend to use Ashkenazi (Northern European) pronunciation, whereas I use Modern Hebrew pronunciation which is rooted in Sephardi (Iberian/Middle Eastern) pronunciation e.g. the final ‘t’ in Modern Hebrew often becomes ‘s’ in Ashkenazi pronunciation so Shabbat becomes Shabbos). I need to process details of Jewish law and avoid transgressing it. Then there are the social mores of the frum world, more formal in some ways (e.g. children refer to their elders as “Mr X” or “Mrs Y” not their first names), but more relaxed in others (e.g. people are far more relaxed about dropping in and out of their friends’ houses unexpectedly than in general, at least in anti-social London). All this on top of my low self-esteem and feelings that I am religiously inadequate (e.g. the assistant rabbi’s comment), which just fuels the flames; it is hard to avoid a social/religious faux pas if you are in a state of some anxiety about making such a mistake. It’s very difficult and it’s no wonder so much about my religious life leaves me feeling anxious, or that I have become such an infrequent shul-goer in recent years since moving to a new, frummer community.
Later: I’ve recovered now. I’ve eaten (including a Magnum, reward for a difficult day) and watched some Doctor Who (I was supposed to have a break from it after watching so much as research for my book, but I’ve ended up watching the animated Shada because I’ve been stressed the last few days and needed the support that I can only get from my special interest). I spoke to my parents about some of the ideas in this post and they felt that they made sense. I know it seems silly to say that I worry how frum people will see me when I know that, compared with a lot of people I have a good understanding of Judaism and Jewish law and a reasonable Hebrew vocabulary, but there we go; anxieties aren’t rational.