Work is very slow at the moment, which possibly gives me too much time to think, or to overthink things. I thought more about trying to find my religious place and about trying to find some kind of purpose in life beyond doing boring work, badly, for inadequate pay (my pay is very generous compared to what I do, but inadequate to live on unsupplemented).

I woke up feeling a failure, I’m not sure why. The exception, the non-failure, is my relationship with E, which is a big exception, but still, I feel that I’m not achieving enough (what is “enough”? Enough to help support a family or enough to stroke my ego?). I sometimes feel like I interpret any error on my part or anyone with difference of opinion to me as a sign of failure on my part, that I should have spotted the error or predicted the difference of opinion and accounted for it in advance.

On the way to work, I listened to an Orthodox Conundrum discussing whether Modern Orthodox schools [1] teach too much Talmud. This was interesting, but also (for want of a better word) triggering. The argument in favour of as much, or more, Talmud included the need for immersion in the language (Aramaic and rabbinical Hebrew) and thought-system of the Talmud and Medieval commentators to really make progress in understanding, which I probably agree with, in a way, but I was left with the feeling that, having not gone to yeshivah and not studied/studying Talmud in depth or at length, my Torah study is at best “dilettante” (as the “pro-more-Talmud opinion said) or even that I am a “second class Jew.” I’m not sure what the context for this remark was, and I’m pretty sure it was being said along the lines of, “We mustn’t let people who don’t study/understand Talmud feel like second-class Jews…” but I still felt uncomfortable. On the other hand, Rabbi Kahn did argue that some students are simply not going to understand or enjoy Talmud study, particularly at age fourteen, and that they should study other Jewish topics (like Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) or philosophy) and more creative ways of studying and engaging with Jewish tradition. I agree with this, and it is part of why I didn’t go to yeshivah, but it did prime me to spend the day introspecting about where I fit in the Jewish world (again).

If Torah study is the most important mitzvah (at least for men), and Talmud study is the most important form of Torah study (again, for men), then where does that leave me? Again, reading When Rabbis Abuse, it sometimes seems like being learned is more important than being good in the frum (religious Jewish) community. Certainly being able to study Talmud and lead prayer services seems to lead to status in the frum world in a way that just being a good person does not, or not necessarily. I am still haunted by the image of serial child abuser Todros Grynhaus leading Yamim Noraim (High Holy Day) services even after serious allegations of abuse had been made against him. This was in a Federation shul (synagogue), so moderate Haredi rather than extreme Haredi.

Less melodramatically, I worry that the people I admire would find little to admire in me (except E). I do have a need for approval.

I began to wonder if I need a clearer purpose in life than other people. I need to do more than work to earn money to buy food and pay rent/mortgage so I can live to work to earn money to buy food… I feel this should be important to everyone, but apparently it is not. For many people, work, family and conventional religious behaviour seems to be enough for them[2] and I wonder why it doesn’t seem to be the case for me. Is it just because my family is still hypothetical and my religious behaviour is fraught with difficulty because of autism, social anxiety and disrupted sleep? Or is it because I feel myself to have a weak sense of self and my own opinions, bouncing off other people’s ideas, so I look for a clear mission or guiding principle in life to manifest my life around? I feel that, even without all my “issues,” I would want more from my religious life than going to shul three times a day and studying Talmud (or even something else) for an hour or so a day. I need something more, but I don’t know what.

To some extent, I probably want something conventional Orthodox Judaism just isn’t offering. I went to the little shul (really a Beit Midrash) upstairs to daven Minchah (say Afternoon Prayers) after work this afternoon. There wasn’t a service, I just wanted to pray in a shul and I knew I wouldn’t go this evening. Before I davened, I just sat in the quiet and calm of the empty room and it was very peaceful and comfortable, but that’s not really a Jewish way to respond to sacred spaces. There are kabbalists and Hasidim who meditate (I’ve done it in the past), hitbodedut, mantra meditation, other types of meditation, but it’s not considered mainstream. It’s not something most frum people would associate with Judaism.

Then again, maybe once I get married, I really won’t need anything else, particularly if we have children. Maybe being with someone I love and who loves me, in a genuinely reciprocal relationship (unlike previous relationships, which were always one-sided, despite my efforts) will be enough for me, and I won’t care any more about where I fit in the religious world beyond where we happen to be, or about getting published or being taken seriously or anything else (OK, I would probably still worry about money and boredom if I was in the same job). I hope so, because sometimes hoping for more than that seems foolish.

[1] I’m not sure how the American school system works and what grades correspond to what ages, but I think this was mostly about secondary schools.

[2] Admittedly not the scores of people who are all over the internet describing themselves as “activists,” but, then again, I’m not sure what these people do other than repost stuff on social media.

***

I tried to submit my first novel to another agent. The first agency I looked at didn’t want religious fiction. I’m not sure that my novel is “religious fiction,” exactly, but it’s probably near enough to make it not worth my time submitting. The second agency said something along the lines of, “Fiction doesn’t need to be Christian, but it should not conflict with a Christian worldview.” Talk about betwixt and between. The next agent is apparently autistic, and wants the usual standard marginalised voices, but doesn’t want “inspirational works including religious overtones.” What does that mean? (Please don’t tell me that religious people can’t be marginalised, or aren’t marginalised if they’re Jewish or Christian rather than Muslim or Hindu.) They only wanted the first five pages, which I don’t think is really enough to sell the story (what next, the first five words?), but I was just desperate to submit to someone so I hadn’t wasted the evening. In the end I sent to a different agent at the same agency. The agency wanted me to follow them on Twitter, which did lead me wonder just how desperate they think I am. I am desperate to get published, but not that desperate. I wanted to submit to another agency, but it was hard finding one that was suitable and I ran out of time.

Anyway, I have applied to twenty-five agencies in a year, which is NOT good going. Admittedly, there have been times when I stopped submitting for months on end, for various reasons (applying for jobs, waiting for the emerging writers’ programme to get back to me, E here or me going to the US, Pesach preparation…), but it’s still disappointing. I’m up to ‘J’ in the alphabetical agency list I’m using. Also, some of these agents sound really annoying, super-privileged middle class people super-proud of themselves for being on the side of a carefully-curated and approved set of Little People.

***

E read, and told me about, the recently-published novel Shmutz, about a Haredi woman who is addicted to pornography. I was worried about it stealing the thunder from the novel I’m working on about a pornography-addicted Haredi rabbi. She doesn’t know where my novel is going, but she has seen the first draft of the first couple of chapters. She says it didn’t seem like there was a huge overlap. Shmutz has apparently some very graphic descriptions of violent pornography, which there definitely won’t be in my novel.

After we spoke, I took the plunge and skimmed the first few pages on Amazon look inside, although I don’t want to read the whole thing until I’ve finished my first draft. It left me somewhat despondent. Shmutz gets off to a much quicker start than my novel, opening with the main character telling her doctor she doesn’t want to marry as that would involve giving up pornography on the first page. My first chapter tries to build up slowly to the reveal of the apparently too-good-to-be-true protagonist’s secret, but I worry it will bore people, and agents only seem to want to look at the first ten or even five pages, not the first twenty-five. Shmutz seems much more open about its subject matter than I’m able to be, much more fitting with the contemporary idiom. I struggle with things like slang and think my prose is probably ponderous (in general, including here, not just in the novel). In terms of explicitness, I want to balance between writing something vaguely suitable for religious Jews, pornography addicts and partners of pornography addicts to read without being triggered, while still trying not to be as coy as most Orthodox writing about sex.

I suspect Shmutz doesn’t have my pretentions to Serious Literature either; I want my novel to be deeply about things like the Jewish idea of repentance and redemption as much as about sex. I probably want to be taken seriously too much (again, in life as well as in writing). E thinks I’m wasting my talents writing serious fiction when she thinks I’m better at writing science fiction satire (based on a squib I showed her a while back), but I have to really be in the right mindset to write that, and I worry I can’t put myself in that zone, I just occasionally get pushed into it by things around me. Plus writing satire would involve being more aware of current events and the idiocies of the age (Big Tech, Trump, woke, etc.) than I want to be right now.

***

I’ve been re-watching some Fawlty Towers lately. Sometimes, at work or volunteering or occasionally in other places, someone says something to me and I just have no idea what they’re saying, whether through executive dysfunction, sensory overload, difficulty processing spoken instructions or something else. Whoever I’m talking to has to say the same thing multiple times and I stare blankly until it eventually sinks in on the fifth attempt. The reasons are different, but I think from the outside it looks exactly like Basil Fawlty trying to communicate with Manuel, only without the casual sadism. “Please try to understand before one of us dies!”

12 thoughts on “I Come from Barcelona

  1. Many of us don’t feel successful in every area of our lives and speaking for myself, I try to accept myself mostly as is. I’m a decent partner, an OK mom, a better than average teacher, a dutiful daughter and mostly a caring friend. I wasn’t unsuccessful in my career but I didn’t particularly distinguish myself, although my students and colleagues might disagree. I’m average. I think you have an extraordinary intellect, a gift and passion for writing and the ambition to pursue it and a desire to improve yourself and your relationship with your religion and the people around you. I’m much older than you and in a very different life stage, so feel free to ignore this comment!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for this! Yes, I think most people are average, by definition, including myself. I guess I just survived my childhood by telling myself one day I would be successful, not in those words, necessarily, but with that kind of meaning. It’s hard to adjust to how my life has gone instead.

      Like

  2. I think there’s some merit to the advice that starting the novel with an attention-getting opening, vs. a chronological backstory, could be effective and marketable. But to have to join Twitter and follow an agency? Ugh! (I hate Twitter.)

    Not that I’ve read your science fiction satire, but I could believe you’d be good at satire. It’s always funny to me what others see in our writing. Pre-blog, I never would have seen myself as a humorous writer. At no point in my life have I ever been considered funny. It wasn’t until I started receiving blog comments that I realized humor might even be a writing strength of sorts.

    I also question if I really have a mission.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I hate Twitter too. Cold openings can be effective, but also disorientating. When Steven Moffatt was Doctor Who show-runner, he used them quite a lot (or seemed to; I haven’t counted how many there actually were), but they become a bit gimmicky after a while. That’s less of a problem with a novel than a TV series, though.

      Thanks for thinking I would be good at satire. Interesting that you never saw yourself as a humorous writer before you started blogging.

      I basically believe religiously that I have some kind of mission, but I struggle to see it in my life as it’s turned out.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It is so hard to put yourself out there to face judgement and rejection. Try to be gentle with yourself. I know it’s not easy as I’ve got that internal judging voice as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The agents sound annoying. How desperate are they that they want or require you to follow them on Twitter? Then again, following them there doesn’t mean you have to be active there.

    I don’t know how to measure humans as I think we’re very complex and that any attempt at measuring to determine where we fall is bound to omit important elements of ourselves.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I think your anxiety and those kinds of thoughts are going to ramp up as you’re going through so much change right now. I think and am hoping that those thoughts will settle once you’re married. For one thing, you’ll probably be more involved in your relationship and building a home, and that won’t give you as much time to think. It’ll be so different and nice to have E living with you. I hope you stop and give yourself credit that you’re achieving something you wondered if you would. You are on track.

        You’ve mentioned feeling less than others who went to yeshiva, but I’d think with all of the studying you do, you have either caught up with them or you can catch up with them. I imagine you’re much more knowledgeable about various aspects of Judaism than many who went to yeshiva. I personally feel like it’s more important to study Torah than Talmud, but there’s room for both. Study of the prophets seems to get neglected in Judaism. Any idea why that is?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Re: anxiety, I agree. Thanks for saying I’m on track!

          I don’t study Talmud as frequently or intensively as in yeshivah, and many people who went to yeshivah are still studying regularly. You’re probably right that I have a breadth of knowledge they don’t necessarily have.

          The usual reason given for neglect of the prophets in the Orthodox world is the fact that it has no real halakhic (legal) content (unlike the Talmud), which makes the latter more relevant to everyday Jewish life. It may also be a way of drawing a line between Jews and Christians, who study it a lot more. Religious Zionist yeshivahs and communities generally study the Hebrew Bible more than Haredi ones.

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