The last Shabbat (Sabbath) of the Jewish year 5779 turned out to be as difficult as many of the previous ones.
To be fair, Friday night was quite good. I coped with shul (synagogue) and even joined in the circle dancing after Lecha Dodi, albeit rather half-heartedly and more because I didn’t want to stand out than because I wanted to join in. Then I went for dinner. I was invited by one of the men I usually sit with in shul. He had also invited the other person I sit with as well as the latter’s wife. These are the people I feel most comfortable with in the shul, I guess I could call them friends, so it was a good evening. Part of the conversation was about where on the spectrum between “Modern Orthodox” and “Haredi” (ultra-Orthodox) the shul is and where we see ourselves. I probably had more I could have said than I felt confident saying, particularly when talking about placing figures like Rav Kook and Rabbi Lord Sacks on the frum (religious) spectrum, but I did join in and it was interesting to see that not everyone in the shul considers themselves Haredi. So it’s not just me. As an aside, I very much think it is a spectrum, not a binary distinction and someone can be Haredi in some ways and Modern in others and, in theory at least, there isn’t a huge need to pinpoint yourself at some precise spot on the spectrum.
I got home late, though. I spent some time with my parents and then read for a while as I needed my “introvert time” to unwind from five or six hours of “peopling.” I got to bed at 1.30am, which was very late, but then I could not sleep again. I don’t really understand why I have this highly specific insomnia on Friday nights. I think I eventually fell asleep around 4.00am, so unsurprisingly when I woke up at 8.00am for shul I didn’t have the energy to get up and go to shul, even though I wanted to. I kept thinking, “I’ll just lie here another minute and then I’ll get up” but of course eventually I fell asleep again and missed shul. I dozed for an hour after lunch too. I decided to read downstairs rather than on my bed as I usually do to avoid falling asleep, but I just fell asleep on the sofa.
It was at shul in the afternoon that things took a turn for the worse. Sitting in Gemarah shiur (Talmud class) I felt I didn’t really connect with the topic. I had this vision of the hierarchy of status in the frum world. At the top comes the great Torah (read: Talmud) scholars. My brain doesn’t work like that and my depression stops me concentrating or being able to study, so I’m never going to be one of those. Then come the people who organise the community. I don’t have the necessary organisational and people skills because of autism and my depression prevents me from giving up that amount of time (my Dad used to do it in our old shul, I know how long it takes), so I’m never going to be one of those. Then come people who regularly make up the minyan (prayer quorum); I used to do that in my old shul, but I can’t do it now because of social anxiety. Then comes the people who spend ages davening with great kavannah (praying with great concentration); again, nixed by depression. I’m not quite sure where I can find room to exist. Even if I manage to write “Jewish” novels, the type of novels I want to write will almost make me hope that no one in my community reads them or goodness knows what will happen. I want to write about people on the fringes of the community, survivors of domestic abuse, people who struggle to mix modernity and tradition (e.g. re: Creationism and evolution), false messiahs. Not Artscroll stuff.
Then came seudah shlishit (the third Sabbath meal), which today was a siyuum for Shas Mishnayot (celebration for finishing religious study, in this case the whole of the Mishnah, the oldest part of the Talmud). My shul has a thing where on Simchat Torah (Jewish festival at the end of the autumn new year festivals) people sign up to study a certain amount of Mishnah over the coming year, culminating in this siyuum before Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). I never participate in this, for various reasons, the biggest being that I feel I can’t commit to studying that much Torah while I’m this depressed. So I felt out of place from the start and I forced myself to stay partly to be part of the community, partly to support my friend, who sponsored the siyuum in honour of his late mother. A guest rabbi spoke about the importance of Torah study. I suppose I should feel positive when he spoke about the reward for Torah study being for the effort rather than the amount “learnt” or level of comprehension, but I just felt inferior for not studying enough. Could I study more? I really don’t know, nor do I know how to find out. I also always feel uncomfortable with the Hadran (prayer at the end of studying a section of Torah), where it says “We give thanks before You, HaShem our God and God of our fathers, for you gave us a share among those who sit in the study hall, and not among those who sit on street corners. For we arise early, and they arise early; we arise for words of Torah, and they arise for words of emptiness. We work, and they work; we work and receive a reward, and they work and do not receive a reward. We run, and they run; we run towards eternal life, and they run to a pit of desolation.” I find the whole thing offensive to people who can’t study as well as to non-Jews, plus I imagine that I’m one of the ones running to the pit of desolation. This was reinforced when, after the seudah, while we were waiting for Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers), I read a dvar Torah which basically said that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (one of the most prominent Haredi rabbis of the twentieth century) said that someone who keeps Torah and mitzvot (commandments), but finds them hard is a “root that bears gall and wormwood” as he might become lax in his observance or his children will stop being religious because he won’t have passed true dedication on to them. One has to find find Torah and mitzvot a source of happiness. So obviously I’m a bad person.
The guest rabbi also spoke about the importance of being a teacher (he meant a Jewish studies teacher in a Jewish school). I did wonder if I was meant to hear this, as my parents and E. have been encouraging me to think about teaching primary school children or at least being a teaching assistant. I really don’t think I could do it, though, and wonder why so many people think otherwise. Still, it would be a job and potentially I could be in a Jewish school and not have to worry about taking off Jewish holidays.
After Ma’ariv I helped tidy up a bit. There was lots to do to get the ready for Rosh Hashanah, but I just couldn’t face it and fled, which was also bad. The whole way home I was having difficult thoughts, not about suicide per se, but feeling that I would be better off dead, even if I end up in Gehennom (the nearest thing to Hell in Judaism) as at least Gehennom only lasts a year and you can’t actually do anything else wrong while you’re there, while here I’m constantly doing the wrong thing and incurring more punishment. I thought about Rosh Hashanah being tomorrow and that I’m going to be written for a bad year again, I just know it, because I’ve had bad years almost every year I’ve been an adult, loneliness and depression, to the extent that I can’t imagine anything going right for me. I can’t imagine getting a career I enjoy and am successful at (as a writer or anything else), I can’t imagine getting married (perhaps only one person has ever really cared for me romantically and that seems unlikely to ever work out for a whole host of reasons), I can’t imagine ever fully fitting in to a community (it wouldn’t be so hard if everyone was like the people I spent Friday night with, though). I can’t ever see my life, or my religious life/Torah study and mitzvah performance being enjoyable or meaningful. It just all seems so hopeless.
I came home in such a state that my parents said I looked awful and excused me from helping to tidy up as I didn’t look capable. I suppose I should have something to eat. It has taken me over an hour to write this, as I keep getting distracted, which may be depressive poor concentration, but I suspect is more procrastination to avoid facing up to what I’m writing here. “Facing up” in two senses: the literal sense I’ve written here, that, rightly or wrongly, I feel that I’m in a no-win situation and I can’t fit in to the culture I want to be accepted in, nor can I live according to the values I want to live by; but also face up to the fact that deep down I know, or at least I suspect, that it’s not as obvious as I write, that I am trying to be a good Jew and that has to count for something with someone, but I can’t see how I can really be a good Jew when I seem to try so little and when I seem to get so little joy from it, when so many people say that having joy in it is the main thing. I mean, I could have tried harder to get up and go to shul this morning, I could have tried harder to study Torah instead of sleep and read other things this afternoon, I could have tried harder to understand the Talmud shiur, I could have tried harder to help getting the shul ready this evening. I feel somehow there is a trick that I could do to have joy at shul or studying Torah or at a religious social event like the siyuum, but I don’t know how to do it, so I will get punished.
OK, time out, time to eat a cheese bagel and watch The IT Crowd.