My shul (synagogue) is meeting in an cramped classroom (apparently — I haven’t actually seen it) some way away from my parents’ house for the next six months. As a result, I decided I would rather go to my parents’ shul this week. It was a bit surprising. There were more people there than attended my shul even pre-COVID, but the room is large and it didn’t feel over-crowded. There was more background noise than in my shul, the noise of a large crowd of people, but also some talking, which we don’t get at my shul, but there was no real clapping or thumping tables and I felt less overwhelmed than I have done in my shul for a while. This is possibly an indication that the United Synagogue has more to offer me than I thought, although the issues around the chazzan (cantor) and choir would emerge if I went more often (I dislike chazzanut (cantorial singing) as well as choral singing, and the chazzan at my parents’ shul is controversial even among people who do like chazzanut as he tends to drag things out with his singing). My ideal shul is probably some non-existent unicorn shul (a shul that exists no more than unicorns do, not a shul for unicorns to go to).
I did some Torah study over Shabbat, but slept too much. After lunch, I felt so tired that I had to lie down. I knew I should drink coffee and try to stay awake, but bed was too inviting. I don’t know how well I’ll sleep tonight, and I will lose an hour as the clocks go forward.
We turned on the news after Shabbat to see President Biden giving a speech that would have been denounced by the Left as “Fascist” and “warmongering” if delivered by George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. I say this not to take sides, but just to point out another example of how topsy-turvy politics in the West in general and the USA in particular have become over the last ten years or so.
I sought refuge from The World in Pigs Have Wings, the P. G. Wodehouse novel I’m currently reading. It is about as far from the real world as you can get. It’s so light, it threatens to float towards the ceiling if you let go of it.
I was imagining it taking place in the inter-war era, but, checking the copyright page, I found it was first published in 1952. I always imagine Wodehouse as inter-war, but he started writing over a decade before World War I and continued into the 1970s. I think most people would associate him and his books with the high society of the twenties and thirties, regardless of when they actually appeared. It’s similar with Agatha Christie, who did indeed start writing in the twenties, but was also writing well into the seventies, but somehow carries the atmosphere and outlook of the the twenties and thirties into her later works so that they seem earlier.
I was sufficiently awake tonight from sleeping in the afternoon that I did half an hour of late-night novel writing. It wasn’t terribly productive, but it was something. My parents were actually asking me questions about my novels on Friday night. They asked about my finished novel and I struggled to explain what it is about. I think one failing of that novel is that I can’t really summarise it in one sentence. What editors and publishers refer to as a “logline pitch” (for reasons I do not understand). I said something about it being about an autistic young man in the frum community, trying to downplay the autobiographical aspects, which I’m now a bit worried about. I’m bad about talking about (a) myself, (b) things I’ve done and (c) things that matter to me at the best of times (except to E, strangely), so it is hard to cope with these questions.
Then my parents asked about the novel I just started writing: what was that one about? “You don’t want to know,” was all I could say. I couldn’t face discussing pornography-addicted rabbis with my parents at the Shabbat dinner table, not without advanced warning. I do think that, if I want to become a writer, and if I carry on writing in this vein, I’m going to need to do some careful thinking about talking to people about my writing. I don’t mean agents, editors and reviewers, but family, friends and other shul-goers. What I’ve written and planned so far is… not what people might expect me to write about.
I feel that I’m torn between part of me that feels the urge to Do Things and to be busy and productive all the time (as some commenters here have noticed), and another part that likes time to do nothing and think and contemplate and be mindful of the world. It is good to have time for that on Shabbat at least, without work, TV or internet.
In his book Yeshiva Days, anthropologist Jonathan Boyarin tries to present yeshiva (rabbinic seminary) study as anti-capitalist, because it’s done for no material reward. I think, like a lot of critics of capitalism, Boyarin misses the point that capitalism isn’t about money, but about utility, defined in economic terms as “the ability to satisfy want.” Yeshiva study seeks to maximise utility in the Next World (afterlife) by building up the biggest possible Heavenly reward through the most valuable action (in Yeshivish theology), studying Torah. It simply replaces earning money in this world with earning spiritual reward in the next. That is sort-of anti-capitalist, but not exactly.
I feel like I could present a theory of why I increasingly like wasting time, not doing much, and thinking about things that would explain it in capitalist or religious terms. I could say that it gives me time to think about topics I would like to write about, and get paid to write about (please God, one day…). Also, that taking time to let my thoughts percolate is when I have interesting insights in Jewish topics, so that it can be seen as Torah study. I’m not sure how much either of these theories are true, however. I think I just find the pace of the modern world overwhelming and seek escape (although it often involves escape into thoughts about the world that I am trying to escape). In this I am like many autistic people, and probably many non-autistic people. I just like to retreat into myself rather than external distractions (although I do that too). I do often feel guilty though, that I should be earning money and/or doing religiously-valuable tasks, or at least writing, and trying to sell, novels.