I felt mildly down late last night. I’m not sure why, possibly because I wanted to waste a few minutes on Jewish websites, and they all seem full at the moment with two things: My Unorthodox Life (reality TV series about a formerly religious, now very not religious, woman) and Ben and Jerry’s boycotting the West Bank. It annoys me that I’m supposed to care about either of these things just because I’m Jewish. I’m not responsible for every Jew who stops being religious (or stays being non-religious) and I’m not responsible for the actions of the Israeli government or other people responding to the Israeli government, but somehow there is a sense that I should be, and that if I can’t do anything else, I should at least be OUTRAGED.
There is even a Talmudic term for this: kol Yisrael averim ze ba’ze: all Israel are responsible for one another. That really means that Jews should look after each other, and can pray on behalf of one another; I don’t think the rabbis of the Talmud meant that every time you see someone criticising Judaism or Israel on Twitter you need to be OUTRAGED in case someone believes them and thinks Jewish life is imperfect.
The problem is, on some level I do feel responsible. Perhaps it’s just me, or perhaps it’s Judaism’s self-critical culture. Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, is a relentlessly self-critical work (this became a problem when non-Jews got hold of it) and Jewish media outlets are hugely self-critical. Part of me feels I should do something, not about these specific things, but when Jews are outraged about something that is worth being outraged about. But, as I’ve said before, I don’t want to write polemic.
Twitter is probably also responsible, shortening every serious debate to a few hundred characters and encouraging instant response instead of reflection. Whoever even pauses to make a cup of tea before hitting “reply,” let alone waits to sleep on a matter. By the time you’ve slept on something, Twitter will have moved on to being OUTRAGED about something else. E thinks that, if I get a publisher, they may make me go on Twitter, a thought which terrifies me, because I don’t know how to avoid getting sucked in to the OUTRAGE. There is also the time-wasting aspect too. No wonder journalists seem to find all their stories on Twitter these days; they simply aren’t out in the real world any more (this was obviously worse when Donald Trump was President and American government policy was actually being made on the fly on Twitter, but it’s still pretty bad).
What do I want to do, then? I want to write, not polemic, but description. It is hard, as I am probably a better observer of negatives than positives, which makes my writing seem opposed to the things I write about, which are actually the things I care about.
Writing about Rudyard Kipling (in the essay of the same name), George Orwell says that Kipling was able to write about British India because he existed on the fringes of Imperial society, “just coarse enough to be able to exist and keep his mouth shut in clubs and regimental messes.” Kipling’s unusual position on the boundary of two very different worlds, “coarse enough” to mix with soldiers and Imperial administrators, but highbrow enough to write well, gave him a unique position to write about British Imperial life, something that no true soldier or administrator would have done, but which no other writer of the period would have the experience or desire to do and which, Orwell argues, is pretty much unique in nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain.
I feel that if I have any future as a writer, it is on the fringe of the Orthodox world, trying at least to produce a real record of it for posterity, and perhaps for those among the non-Jewish (or non-frum) world who are willing to listen. Not to do kiruv (proselytise among non-religious Jews) or hasbarah (make pro-Israel arguments), but simply to describe.
Interestingly, Orwell says of Kipling that he “he did not greatly resemble the people he admired.” I think this is true of me as well. I don’t greatly resemble the Kotzker Rebbe or Rebbe Nachman, but then neither do I really resemble my secular literary heroes, Kafka, Borges, Philip K. Dick and Orwell himself.
Other than writing this, today wasn’t great. I slept too long again. I rushed to get dressed in five minutes so that I would be just barely able to daven a bit of Shacharit (say a bit of Morning Prayers). I was glad I rushed, as I really still felt tired and didn’t want to do it. I cooked dinner (vegetarian chilli), went for a walk and drafted my devar Torah for the week, and I Skyped E, but I didn’t manage much else. I wanted to read more of Yeshiva Days and start to write the Hebrew/Yiddish glossary for my novel, but I didn’t manage to do either.
I feel a bit stressed at the moment and I can’t work out why. I’m frustrated that E can’t visit and I’m nervous about trying to find an agent for my novel, but neither of those seems big enough to cause much stress. Maybe I’m underestimating them or perhaps I just need a break. There’s no volunteering for the first two weeks of August and J is away the second two weeks, so I may get some kind of break. I’d rather save work holiday for when E comes, but I’m not sure how much of my job I can actually do without J being around, so I may have to take the time off.
I’ve nearly finished The Master and Margarita. I just have the epilogue left. It got better, but I still feel I didn’t really “get” it. I am not engaged enough to want to read the enormous, thirty page “About the Author” section. I think my favourite novel about black magic in the Soviet Union is still Monday Starts on Saturday by the Strugatsky brothers (imagine Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University in the USSR).