I should probably point something out before I start, because it’s going to colour how you see this post.  Jews tend to see each other as an extended family.  On the one hand, this strong in-group feeling leads to a lot of social capital in the form of charity, formal and informal social support and so on.  On the other hand, it seems to mean that some Jews think they have a right to interfere in other people’s business as if they were close relations.

With that in mind, I got to work today to find someone already in the library studying Talmud (or “learning” as he would probably say in Yeshivish).  He had been told there was going to be a new librarian and, on learning that I was he, asked about my educational background.  Oxford for my BA and an MA in Library and Information Management was not what he wanted to know.   No, he wanted to know where I learnt Talmud.  I told him that I didn’t, because the reality is too complicated and I didn’t think that I could give a more nuanced answer in the heat of the moment.  To be honest, I think my self-esteem about Talmud is so low that it didn’t really occur to me to say that I have actually done quite a bit of Talmudic study and also that there are other aspects of Judaism that are important.

He spoke to me about the library for a while.  I have to be careful what I say here, but he is something of a stakeholder in the institution, so I could not dismiss his views out of hand, but I disagreed with some of them.  He has, for instance, removed books from the library before because he did not think them suitable for a religious library.  In fact, he was quite keen on ditching all the Jewish history books and only keeping narrowly religious books.  All this despite the fact that he has no official standing to do that; as I say, he is a stakeholder, but a somewhat informal one.  He said some other things too that I won’t go into, but I think I will have to learn to manage him.  I may have to bow to him in some respects, though, because the thing I wanted to change that he absolutely does not want to change apparently has the rabbi’s permission.

There was much more to this conversation, but I should probably not say too much just in case it leaks out somehow.  I did try to work out afterwards if he was really looking down on me for not having gone to yeshiva/being a big Talmud student or if I was just paranoid (he has apparently studied the whole of the Talmud straight through four times).  I know I say here that I feel inadequate for not having gone to yeshiva or being able to “learn” by myself, but while this conversation reinforced those feelings, it also made me feel indignant at being dismissed.  The Greek poet Archilochus said, “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  He may be a fox, but I’m a hedgehog.  I’m just not sure what the big thing I know is.

After that the day was quite straightforward, except there was a tea party for the elderly downstairs in the afternoon with a lot of loud music and noise.  I know the library is only a tiny part of the institution, but it was difficult to work with it.  Also, I’m still getting used to the idea that Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Prayer Services) are in the library in the middle of the afternoon.  On one level it suits me, as I would pray anyway, so it just makes it easier for me, but the autistic part of me that has difficulty dealing with transitions struggled today to get back into work mode afterwards for the last hour after being in a “people-ey” room for twenty minutes.

I had some general issues with classification and organising the library, but I think I’m doing OK with it so far.  I said to E. that I do kind of enjoy those kinds of librarian puzzles, working out which category books belong in, but I also worry about messing everything up somehow.  I think I would enjoy this job more if I wasn’t so worried about it.  I have mostly been OK at working out the content of the Hebrew language-only books, at least to get an idea of where they go (I have some reading Hebrew, but I’m far from fluent).

I do think I came home today with more energy than in some previous jobs, although that may partly be because the commute is less stressful (shorter, but also on a less busy part of the Tube where it’s easier to get a seat at rush hour).  I do find I get physically tired as I’m on my feet most of the day as I move books around the library.  Hopefully once I move on to cataloguing I will be able to sit more and it will be easier.  But I think so far things have not been so draining; with some previous jobs when I got home I would have to sit for ages until I felt energetic enough to deal with dinner.  I had hoped to work on my novel tonight, but by the time I had done some chores, spoken to my parents and my sister (who phoned) and eaten dinner, it was too late and I was too tired.  I did work on my devar Torah (Torah thought) for this week for twenty minutes, although I stopped with it half-written as I’m too tired, plus I still need to be up somewhat early tomorrow as I’m seeing my psychiatrist.

4 thoughts on “The Fox and the Hedgehog

  1. Sounds like an interesting character to have to navigate. Religious study snobbishness seems rather uncalled for. And if the Torah is of divine origin shouldn’t devoting time to that “count” a lot more than the Talmud?


  2. Yes.

    The Talmud is also seen as being of divine origin, if not necessarily in exactly the same way. It’s seen as being part of an oral tradition transmitted alongside the Torah.


  3. I think you were very restrained. I would really resent this sort of interference. You are the librarian! But I can appreciate you have to be diplomatic. Do you have anyone you report to directly? It can be difficult if there are a lot of “stakeholders” as you put it, and no clear line management. I hope you can be assertive about your new domain – and I would encourage you not to be overly modest. This gentleman was obviously showing off his religious knowledge and might have deferred a little more had you been less self-effacing. But it does all sound promising and it sounds like you have made a really good start.


    1. The problem is that I don’t really report directly to anyone. There is the benefactor who owns most of the library who pays me, but seems pretty hands off so far and that’s about it.

      Yes, in retrospect I wish I had been more assertive, but it’s hard to overcome the social anxiety and my natural inclination not to show off.


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