I’ve mentioned before that I read therapist Elisheva Liss’ weekly “schmoozeletter,” which combines thoughts on the weekly sedra (Torah reading) with insights from modern psychology and psychotherapy. This week she spoke about people in struggling (but not abusive or clearly not working) marriages. She tries to get them to label their interactions and other aspects of the marriage with marks out of ten, with one for the worst possible experience and ten for the best. Then she tries to get people to accept that a set of perfect tens is unrealistic and that a wider range of values can result in a marriage that, while imperfect, is still rewarding and enjoyable. “Maybe getting to a range of 5-7 would be transformative and beautiful in its own imperfect way, if we stopped fixating on the elusive, unrealistic 10?”

I wondered if I should apply this to my religious life. Maybe I’m looking for perfect tens for my davening (prayer), Torah study, mitzvah (commandment) performance, middot (character traits), emunah (faith) and so on. Perhaps I can accept a religious life that is good enough rather than perfect. I haven’t, as yet, assessed the different parts of my religious life and I’m not sure that giving them an exact score is a good idea, but instead I should try to feel that I don’t have to have perfect concentration and connection when davening, I don’t have to have amazing insights every time I study Torah and so on in order to have a meaningful religious life. I just have to be having a better than average experience regularly.

Part of the problem is knowing what I actually FEEL when davening/studying Torah/etc.? I don’t have an official diagnosis of alexithymia (difficulty recognising and distinguishing my own emotions), but one therapist was very sure that I have that difficulty and that is my own experience too. When I feel that my davening or my Torah study lacks a feeling of connection or joy, perhaps the issue is recognising and distinguishing the emotions rather than actually feeling them. This is supported by the fact that I continued with davening and Torah study during the years when I was severely depressed, often at a reduced level, but it was important for me to do something and that probably indicates more than fear and certainly more than just habit.

Likewise, I believe that God exists, and I can tell that I hold this belief much more strongly than I have in the past, so the fact that I don’t feel a strong connection to Him may be a product of unrecognised emotions rather than absent emotions. That said, thinking about connection with God is an inherently subjective and emotional subject, so maybe I shouldn’t see that as the be all and end all of my religious life.

***

Another thought was prompted by an Orthodox Conundrum podcast featuring Rabbi Pesach Sommer talking about whether it is possible to educate for faith (not indoctrinate). He spoke about Orthodox thinkers that teenagers should be introduced to (I had read most of them, pleasingly) and one was Hillel Zeitlin. Zeitlin is a fairly obscure figure who was raised in a strict Hasidic family in late nineteenth century Poland, stopped being frum as a teenager, getting into secular philosophy and Russian literature, then later became frum again, but combined his passion for philosophy and literature with Judaism, writing about religion in Dostoyevski and Tolstoy from a Jewish perspective alongside articles on Jewish figures like Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and Rav Kook and, if I remember correctly, trying to compare Judaism with Eastern religions. He was eventually murdered in the Holocaust.

I was familiar with Zeitlin from a volume of his writings that Jewish Renewal rabbi Arthur Green published a number of years ago and he did inspire me, albeit more by his example than by the writings themselves (as with Franz Rosenzweig). The relevance of this here is that Rabbi Sommer saw Zeitlin as a useful writer because he was not a rabbi and was therefore freer to write about his religious doubts and growth than ordained rabbis. He can therefore be a model of the religious quest, rather than a static view of Judaism and Jewish belief and practice.

The point of all this is that it made me wonder if there is benefit to my recording my thoughts about Judaism and my religious growth, including false starts and wrong turns, after all, precisely because I’m not a rabbi and I don’t need to pretend to be living a perfect religious life. I can be honest and authentic without needing to pretend I have all the answers. I can, in fact, try out different answers without having to be sure that they are “correct.”

***

I struggled to sleep again last night. I got four or five hours sleep and I got up alright this morning, but I made a lot of mistakes at work, perhaps due to tiredness, or to sensory overload from the noise of the air conditioner — or autistic executive function issues, or incompetence, or, or, or…

A small victory: doing mundane tasks while listening to podcasts at work, I listened to a therapist critique the shidduch system of arranged dates in the Orthodox world. She said single young people should enjoy the best years of their lives and not worry about being on the shelf in their early twenties. The “best years of their lives” bit would have depressed me in the past as my teens and twenties were mostly spent unemployed, clinically depressed and very lonely, not doing very much at all, and desperately needing the autism/Asperger’s diagnosis I wouldn’t get for years. I did wince a bit, but I just went on with what I was doing. Yes, I had a miserable time. Yes, lots of people had more fun. Probably the net amount of fun they have over their lifetimes will be greater than mine. But there isn’t much point in going over that all over again. I guess things can only get better? (And, yes, we’ve discussed here before whether teens and twenties really are the best years of your life.)

I got the marriage paperwork I was trying to get hold of yesterday, so we’ve got that to look forward to…

***

I submitted my novel to another agent. I wanted to submit to two, but this one wanted so much stuff that I had didn’t have to hand (elevator pitch, one page synopsis) that I ran out of time. It took well over an hour to submit. It’s frustrating that agents all want different things. One wants a one page synopsis, another wants a two page synopsis and it’s harder than you might think to turn one into the other. When what they want is straightforward, I can submit in twenty minutes or so, but this took nearly four times as long.

The agent that I submitted to was the one who found Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I can’t pretend that this didn’t leap out to me because I’m currently reading it, but I guess there are some similarities, although I didn’t list it as a published novel similar to my own (I thought that would be gauche; if there are similarities, she can spot them for herself). I broke my informal rule of not submitting to the CEO of an agency (unless it’s a very small one) because she genuinely seemed like the best fit at this agency. I just hope she has the time to deal with the books she represents.

To be honest, I feel my first novel is a mess, an attempt at writing autobiographical fiction that mutated into more imaginative fiction, but not enough. Some of the autobiographical bits are OK, but the strongest part is the non-autobiographical plot thread about a frum woman being abused by abused by her husband. If I wasn’t involved in other writing (and wasn’t afraid of charges of appropriation?), I’d be tempted to try to expand that to a whole novel on its own. Of the three people (other than me) who have read it, two liked it (and the third arguably was not the target audience), which I guess counts for something. I feel that my current novel is better, but also significantly flawed (I just realised a major flaw in it so far). I guess it’s a learning process.

As is often the case when I submit my manuscript, I was left feeling that I am a bad writer and reader for not reading modern fiction. In a weird way, this is probably due to autism/Asperger’s. Like many people on the spectrum, I like to stick with things I know I will like and can understand deeply rather than trying to understand something new. I read the same authors and sometimes I re-read the same books multiple times, although I’m trying to do that less. I’ve read all the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges (most of them multiple times), all the surviving fiction of Franz Kafka (ditto), all of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels, much of the prodigious outputs of Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, H. G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (all the Professor Challenger stories as well as the more famous Sherlock Holmes ones), Agatha Christie, John le Carre and various other writers. I haven’t read anything from contemporary writers who have only written one or two books. Reading broadly is more of a problem than reading deeply, and reading modern is more of a problem than reading classics.

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12 thoughts on “Honest Jewish Experience and Novel Submission

  1. Yay for marriage paperwork! I agree with your statement that you’re not a rabbi and don’t have to pretend to lead a perfect religious life. Very true. I hope your novel generates some interest from publishers!

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  2. The exercise of rating different aspects of the struggling marriage and getting people accept realism vs. perfection is interesting. Not sure I’d find it helpful in my case because I’d still struggle with how to rate different aspects of the marriage. Also just because 5-7 could be beautiful and enjoyable doesn’t mean that I personally was content with this. Actually the more I think about this, the less I like this exercise or mentality re: marriage. I feel it is more useful for something at an individual level like getting out of a perfectionist mindset around religion (like you wrote).

    My novel is significantly flawed and a mess. The plot is so far-fetched, my characters are not working, I picked the wrong setting and point of view, the entire concept seems idiotic now etc. I don’t know what to do about it.

    I don’t think rabbis should be claiming to live religiously perfect lives or that they have all the answers – they’re human and they don’t.

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    1. I’m sorry to hear about your novel. I hope you find a way round it. How much is written so far?

      I sort of agree with you about rabbis, but I think they would struggle to lead if they admitted to more challenges.

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      1. Too much to feel ok with abandoning, too little to get useful feedback on how to fix the plot issues.

        I hear that, re: rabbis, in the sense that I’m not about to broadcast my professional failures on LinkedIn if I’m still trying to make a full-time career in this industry. (The blog is anon for a reason…) But there ought be a middle ground between appearing perfectly faultless and completely unprofessional.

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        1. Do you mind if I ask how much you’ve written? Just in terms of word count.

          I agree that there ought to be a middle ground, but I can also see why no individual rabbi wants to be the first person to try to move there.

          When I was going to bar mitzvah classes, the rabbi (my communal rabbi at the time) asked the class if anyone had had religious struggles or doubts (I can’t remember his exact words), then put his own hand up. He didn’t elaborate, but that made a big impression on me and quite possibly helped keep my going in my own struggles.

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          1. Between 5k – 10k. Not so much and the scenes themselves aren’t all trash, but I’m getting to issues that will be impossible to fix. I also suspect that even the more redeemable scenes will require a complete re-write later. It’s pretty demoralizing.

            That is impressible for your rabbi to be that open to your bar mitzvah class.

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            1. With my first novel, I planned a couple of chapters, then realised they were background, not plot. Then I wrote a couple of chapters with alternating first-person perspectives, then realised I should do one first-person and one third-person, which necessitated completely rewriting a couple of chapters. It is doable, although I can see why you might find it demoralising.

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