Today was a slowish day. I tried to recover a bit from the last week or so, which suddenly seemed very stressful and overwhelming, even though there was no obvious cause. I cooked dinner (vegetable curry), worked on my novel for an hour, went for a half-hour walk and went to online shiur (religious class). That was probably still doing a lot, but I feel a little better, although I’m still not going to volunteering tomorrow as I feel I need to rest a bit more. It’s too late to change my mind anyway, as they need to know who is coming in advance for security reasons.
The work on my novel was particularly frustrating as I changed a lengthy section into the present tense in the hope it would make it more immediate, but ended up changing it back to the past tense as I was worried it was off-putting and confusing. But I guess sometimes you get days like that, and at least I’m prepared to countenance radical rewrites if necessary.
While I was walking I started listening to a Normal Frum Women podcast* about ba’alei teshuva (Jews raised non-religious who became religious later in life). I haven’t heard the second half of the podcast yet, but there was some talk about the difficulties of navigating frum (religious) social settings where people can work out your religious, or non-religious, background by asking about what school you went to, what summer camp you went to (or youth movement in the UK) or which other Jews you know. I am familiar with these feelings. I did actually go to Jewish schools, but the secondary school I went to is not particularly religious (which I know sounds bizarre from an American point of view, but our religious school system is very different to theirs) and certainly I avoided the usual Jewish youth movements.
I feel that as a person on the autism spectrum, I have an additional problems with this even for the period after I became religious. I don’t know so many people in the communities that I have lived in or at school or university because I tend not to socialise so much or even talk to people. I know J has tried to play “Jewish Geography” with me, asking about people I might know from school or the community I grew up in, and usually I only knew those people as people I would recognise in the street, not people I talked to at all, and sometimes I don’t know them at all.
I also feel that religious life is supposed to go in life stages, or at least it does for most people: childhood, yeshiva/seminary, marriage, parenthood, grandparenthood and, increasingly, great-grandparenthood. Somehow I missed a number of those stages that I should have reached by now. If being a ba’al teshuva means not having the same childhood or yeshiva experiences, being on the spectrum means that I haven’t married or become a parent yet, even though I’m nearly thirty-eight. I do feel that I don’t fully fit into my shul community because of this. I tend not to go to communal social events because I feel out of place without a spouse and children at events that tend to be geared around families rather than individuals; I’ve noticed the small number of other “older singles” (I hate that phrase) and divorcees in the community also seem to avoid them too.
Incidentally, there isn’t really any communal support for high functioning autism in the Anglo-Jewish community, so far as I can tell. If you’re independently functional, you’re really left to find your own way in the community, difficult though it is to do that when you don’t have a brain built to handle interpersonal communication and relationships easily. Dating is an issue for me and doubtless for others, but also feeling that it’s OK not to want to marry and have children is not something that is really allowed for those who don’t want to go down that route. (There is an obvious halakhic issue in that Orthodox Jewish law requires men (at least) to try to get married and procreate, but I’m not going to address that now.)
I feel there are probably a lot of other people in a similar situation to me, even if they aren’t on the spectrum. I mean people who don’t quite fit into the community, who have missed the lifecycle stages and so on. I would like to reach out to some of them with my writing. I have noticed that the people I tend to connect with best online and often in person are those who are “broken” (I don’t mean this in a bad way — I apply it to myself too). The type of people where society might say that they aren’t quite normal. There’s a line about David (before he became king) that I’ve always found attractive, in 1 Shmuel 22.2 (I Samuel 22.2) about, “They gathered to him, every man who was in distress, every man who had a creditor and every man who was embittered of spirit, and he became their leader; there were about four hundred men with him.” I don’t think David’s band of warriors was literally made up of people with clinical anxiety and depression, but I don’t think it’s too extreme to see it as an army of outcasts. That is what it would have been, it’s just that different things make someone an outcast in the contemporary Jewish community as opposed to the iron age community of David’s era.
A flipside of this that I was also thinking about today is that I tend to idealise the frum community somewhat and assume that only I’m struggling with certain things. It’s easy to think that I’m the only person struggling with (for example) struggling to have kavannah in prayer (kavannah is literally ‘direction,’ is usually translated idiomatically as ‘concentration,’ but is perhaps best translated as ‘mindfulness’) or the only person struggling with understanding passages in the Talmud.
Obviously the more shameful something is, the less it is spoken about, which makes it harder to believe that lots of people struggle with it. It’s only really through listening to the Intimate Judaism podcast that I’ve learnt that lots of Orthodox Jewish teenage boys and men struggle with issues around masturbation and pornography, something that probably should have been obvious to me before (call me naive). Some things are not spoken about, hence my perhaps somewhat perverse desire to write books about these topics. I think fiction has an advantage of addressing a controversial topic at one remove which can be easier than writing non-fiction about it.
*Yes, I know I fail to meet one if not two of the qualifications for this podcast.