I had a comment conversation on an old post the other day in the course of which I noted that in my experience, frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) people with mental health issues tend not to stay frum.  The person I was talking to agreed.  That is, on one level, an indictment of the frum community and its treatment of mental health issues, which are not really addressed meaningfully a lot of the time and can even be ignored by sufferers and their families as something damaging to shidduch (dating) chances, for the sufferer or their family.

Nevertheless, I was thinking on a personal level, about how I have tried to stay frum all these years as I’ve seen my peers go on to very different lives (community, careers, marriage, children) while I’m stuck in the same difficult situation.  This is, I suppose, a positive achievement on my part, but I struggle to see it as such.  I keep thinking that I should be doing better: more davening (prayer) with better kavannah (mindfulness), more Torah study and of a higher standard (more Talmud, basically), more kavannah on mitzvot, and working harder on my middot (character traits) especially having a strong connection to HaShem (God).  It’s hard to admit that I’ve been struggling hard and not giving up even though the temptation at time has been overwhelming, particularly when my religious OCD was at its height a few years ago and again this year when I’ve been feeling very distanced from HaShem and Judaism as well as from the community.

As I say, it is hard to give myself praise for that; much easier to criticise myself for not being good enough, to think that if I was a good enough Jew, I would do all those things despite being very depressed, or that just thinking about the concept of God would comfort me.  As it is, I worry that one day it will all be too hard for me and I will “go off the derekh” (literally “go off the path,” a horrible frum expression for stopping being frum).  Sometimes it just seems too hard, especially as I’m aware that my dating chances would be vastly improved if I wasn’t limiting myself to just the frum community or even just the Jewish community (the Jewish community worldwide is about fourteen million, one of the smaller religions.  I haven’t seen statistics for the frum community globally.  In the USA it’s about 10% of the total Jewish population; it’s probably a bit more elsewhere, especially Israel, but still probably no more than about 15%, so maybe about one to two million people).  Of course, much of the frum community would not consider me frum enough to marry them/their daughters, so that limits it even further.

Looking over what I’ve written, it’s strange how thinking about my standing religiously and with regard to the frum community always ends up as a discussion about marriage and loneliness.  I suppose it’s an indication of how lonely I feel generally and how hard it feels to gain acceptance to the frum community without a spouse.  So much of Jewish life revolves around family – family and community, but community centres around family.

There is the issue of God and loneliness which I have been thinking about lately too.  In The Lonely Man of Faith, Rav Soloveitchik writes about loneliness as an essential part of the human condition and the basis of the “covenantal community” which includes God as well as other people.  He is writing primarily about existential loneliness, about the alone-ness that comes from being an individual with unique thoughts and perspectives, rather than just being single and having few friends.

There is a concept of the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence (the feminine aspect of God), that is present over a sick person’s bed.  I’m not sure if that applies to mental illness (it’s talking about someone bed-bound).  Likewise it is said that the Shekhinah followed the Jews into exile and that She can be present in a marriage if a couple are worthy, but I’m not sure there is anything about Her being present to the lonely.  (I think I can accept God as loving more easily as She than He and I’m not sure why.)

***

I tried to work on my novel today, but I found it hard to concentrate.  I tried for about an hour and wrote less than 300 words.  It’s always hard to write on Fridays for some reason, even in the summer when Shabbat (the Sabbath) starts late, giving me more time.  I was feeling very lonely, wondering when (or, more likely, if) I will be well enough and earning enough to date, and especially wondering if I will ever find someone on the right religious level who can look past all my “issues” and see that I do have some things to offer in a relationship.  It all seems very unlikely, and I looked online endlessly for stuff about mental health and shidduchim.  I’m not sure what I wanted.  Maybe something to say I will get married, or conversely that I won’t get married, just something clear that would end the painful uncertainty.  I found it all very unlikely.

I am very lonely and that’s unlikely to change any time soon.  It’s been my default position since I was a teenager.  I don’t know why it’s so hard for me to accept that.  Unsurprisingly, this has been making me feel more depressed.

***

I dreamt about my novel last night, not the one I’m currently writing, but the vague (slightly more than vague) idea for the next one.  It possibly helped me out on a plot point, although I’m not sure yet.   It’s weird to have characters I’ve created permeate my subconscious almost before I’ve set pen to paper (I’ve written a few notes).  I guess it’s a good sign.

8 thoughts on “Staying Jewish, But Staying Lonely

  1. It seems that, being self-critical, you discuss how you feel that you fail at being frum, yet it also sounds like the religion is failing you. Is aligning yourself more with it something that you are willing/able to do ? (not that any religion can meet every need) What kind of sacrifices will it entail to be more frum and feel successful at the religious side of your life? Dumb question, forgive me, but do most frum people marry for love, or more to be married/for convenience? Because of the matchmakers, I wonder about that aspect of dating and relationships in the frum community.

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  2. I don’t think it’s my religion that is failing me so much as the community. Doubtless people there would say I don’t do enough to fit in and join in.

    I’m not sure I can do more to align with Judaism than I currently am. I would need to expend more time and energy on religious study and prayer, particularly with the community, when lockdown is over.

    Not a dumb question at all. Although probably every frum person would have a slightly different answer, mostly people marry because they think there is the opportunity for love, at least. People typically do not date for long compared with the secular West. How long varies according to community, but certainly not for much more than a year; in communities like mine, if a couple dated for more than two or three months before becoming engaged, people would be wondering why they aren’t engaged yet. So they aren’t necessarily feeling “love” in the secular sense (which IMHO is usually just lust and infatuation anyway), but they would look for someone with compatible values and character traits who they think they will develop love for over time. Probably some do marry from peer pressure or family pressure or because it’s “normal” to be married at a certain age, but it isn’t how people are advised to act.

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  3. I can relate! You described the situation very well in your post and comment above. The stigma surrounding mental health conditions is one reason I’m off the derekh. I do better with the liberal/progressive denominations of Judaism (the majority) as opposed to the frum minority. That said, marginalization and loneliness is still a huge problem for me and countless others everywhere in society — be it secular or religious. The religion of Judaism teaches a chesedik way of life — the problem is always with the people who are not ‘practicing what they preach.’ Christians have the same issues with people in church. It’s universal. As far as middot tovot, I realized that people who marginalized me need to work on their own middot, just as I work on mine. We are all works in progress and every day is construction day. Sending lots of chesedik thoughts your way! 🖖

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    1. I think progressive Jews do manage mental health better than the Orthodox. I recently said in a comment elsewhere on the internet on another topic (racism in the frum community) that the frum community has a lot of chessed, but little empathy. If you have a “normal” problem that is accepted in the community, they will help, but if your situation is different from the frum norm, they struggle to put themselves in your shoes and work out what is appropriate to say or do, even things that should be obvious (like not making racist remarks).

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      1. Progressive congregations have NAMI seminars, Pride Shabbat for LGBTQ+ Jews and allies, interfaith events, Inclusion committees, etc.

        What I learned through experience is, the issues in the frum community are the same issues that exist in all ultra conservative and ultra religious communities of all faiths — the more religiously stringent, the narrower the mind.

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        1. My parents (Orthodox) shul has had some mental health events. I think mine did too, but I missed it through being mentally ill (!). But I meant more that progressive rabbis have more mental health training etc. Orthodox rabbis don’t get much in the way of pastoral training.

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          1. That’s good news about your parent’s shul! Each step towards change is encouraging. I do see some Orthodox shuls stepping up and working to dispel damaging stigmas. They need to stay relevant, especially since the younger generations of Orthodox are more aware and tend to want changes for the better.

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