Nature and Nurture Vs. Me

Another dull day at work, which I don’t mind so much, but it’s another day when I made what seemed to me like foolish mistakes and generally handled myself badly. I don’t know what to do about that. Whenever this happens, I start to self-blame and pretty soon I’m comparing myself to school or Oxford peers who are doing better than I am (or who I assume are doing better than I am). To be fair, I mostly kept that in check today, but it’s there in the background. I would like to be doing a job that I felt good at, doubly so if it was one that seemed socially-acceptable given my level of academic success and/or allowed me to support a family, or at least to support myself. Contrary to what your parents and teachers told you, success at school or even at university does not correlate exactly with financial, social or cultural success later in life.

It didn’t help that I only had about four hours of sleep last night as Yom Tov finished late and then I felt I needed to blog to process my thoughts about it and then watch TV to try to unwind a bit. Then I just couldn’t sleep. At least it’s not so hot today.

***

Ashley and Margaret commented on my previous post, about God moving away as I try to move closer to Him. Margaret’s comment reminded me of the comment I posted recently from the Kotzker Rebbe, that “the moments of labouring are the finding.” It’s strange how it’s easy to say that in the abstract, but not when confronted by my actual feelings of hollowness or even failure. I think I was happy after the first day of Yom Tov, despite my failure to get to shul (synagogue) for Shacharit (Morning Prayers) or even to pray at home at the correct time. However, I was upset more by the second day, when I was too burnt out to do much and missed shul in the morning completely. Perhaps I expect too much of myself. I wonder what other frum people manage, those without autistic burnout or social anxiety. From the outside, it looks like they mostly make it to shul early in the morning on Shabbat and Yom Tov (at the very least).

I guess related to this is the difference, as I said yesterday, between a punitive God and a loving God. This is, in part, the difference between God in the Written Torah (Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible) and God as presented in the Oral Torah (Midrash and Talmud). You can get into this very deeply, about the Written Torah coming from the side of din (strictness and justice) and the Oral Torah coming from the side of hesed (lovingkindness) and the fact that I generally tend to line up with din in numerous ways. I don’t really want to get so kabbalistic. But obviously there are these two different sides to God which we believe is a difference more apparent than real, because obviously we’re monotheists and not dualists (like the Gnostics or the Manicheans).

I can believe that a loving God exists, but it’s hard to feel that a loving God could love me. I know this is rooted in childhood experiences and my lack of self-love, but I don’t know how to move on from that. No one has given me practical steps I could do to love myself, let alone to believe that God loves me. Even so, I’m not sure how my inability to love myself corresponds to my inability to find meaning on festivals. Unless I expect too much from them. Similarly, why do I struggle to feel the kind of spiritual joy I feel I am ‘supposed’ to feel or that others seem to feel — is it my old friends anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure) and alexithymia (inability to recognise emotions) again? Or something else?

It’s uncomfortable to feel that I’m still held hostage by my autism (nature), as shown by my experiences at work today, and also by my formative years (nurture). I’m not sure what the solution is.

***

I feel torn between trying to find an agent for my novel, working on the short story I started recently or planning my next novel, but it’s too late to work on any of them (too late at night, not too late to ever work on them). I doubt I will have much time in the next couple of weeks given Yom Tov. Which is a shame, as I feel somewhat creatively-stifled at the moment. I also feel like a bad writer, and the only real cure for that is to write. But, it’s probably on hold for a while.

Success but Hollow Inside

I’ve only got a short time to write, but I wanted to write something and try to process my feelings about Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year).

The background to Rosh Hashanah was a mini-heatwave that hit us unexpectedly. I was expecting it to be pleasant, but it was uncomfortably hot, which had an impact on my mood throughout. The other background is that I had asked to sit in the covered area outdoors, by the window of the shul (synagogue), intended for people who were unwilling or unable to sit indoors because of COVID anxiety or reduced immunity. The acoustics at the window were bad and I spent a lot of my time at shul round the corner by the door, where I could hear and see what was going on rather better.

I don’t really remember much special about the first night in shul. I think I did feel pretty positive, despite the poor acoustics. At home we ate the simanim, special symbolic foods eaten to symbolise a good new year. We have only been doing this for a couple of years and it still has novelty value. Even though it was late, I did some Torah study after dinner, as I hadn’t done much during the day and felt that I wanted to connect to God. I struggled to sleep that night, whether from the heat or the mixed feelings I had being at shul, feeling I was missing out by being outside, but also feeling that I would have a lot of COVID anxiety inside.

I woke up early the next morning, but struggled to get up, I think because of social anxiety rather than burnout, although maybe a bit of both. I find it hard to accept social anxiety as a legitimate excuse for missing shul, even though it happens a lot. I got to shul in time for the sermon and the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn trumpet. Even though I was very late, I still stayed for another three hours until the end of the service; Rosh Hashanah services are very long. I slipped into the shul standing just inside the doorway to hear the shofar, otherwise staying outside except when I was asked to open the Ark for Alenu. I felt I couldn’t really turn it down as I had come in for the shofar, and I think it was an hour to be asked for that particular prayer (where we bow on the floor, something we only do here and on Yom Kippur).

I napped after lunch, then went to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and then on to the brook for Tashlich, then came home. I was getting a headache, which I managed to stop turning into a massive migraine with early intervention, but I felt drained and justified in my decision not to go back for Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers).

I didn’t sleep well again and I struggled to get up in the morning. I had the “flat battery” feeling where I just don’t have the energy to sit up, let alone get dressed and go to shul. I eventually managed to get up around lunchtime. I was upset to have missed shul, but not surprised to be so burnt out. I was too burnt out to catch up on prayers and I didn’t want to delay my parents’ lunch.

After lunch I was still tired, so I napped again before saying the Mussaf prayers. I read the Jewish Review of Books for a bit, then went to shul for Minchah. I somehow found the confidence to tell the rabbi I had missed the morning prayers and the shofar blowing and he arranged for someone to blow it for me before Minchah started. I was pleased, and surprised that I found the confidence to do it, but I felt so socially anxious about drawing attention to myself asking for this that I struggled to focus on the shofar, and later on the prayers for Minchah. I decided I did not have the energy left for the shiur (religious class) and Ma’ariv, so I went home.

J left the same time as I did and said he didn’t see me in the morning and asked if I was OK. I said I’d been unwell, but was OK now; I didn’t want to go into a big thing about autistic burnout in the street. He said if I’m unwell tomorrow not to force myself to come into work, which was nice.

On the whole Rosh Hashanah must be a success, as I got to shul quite a bit and heard the shofar both days. However, I feel kind of hollow and down now and I don’t know why. Some of it is lack of passive relaxation time or alone time. I’ve spent most of my waking hours the last two days with other people, at shul or at home. Beyond this, I suppose I just wonder if I’ll ever get back to being the person who can go to every single service and shiur during the festival.

I suppose I also always focus on the next goal rather than the one just completed. There’s a story about a Hasidic rabbi (I think the Maggid of Mezeritch; I don’t have time to check) who was asked by a Hasid why, whenever he tried to move closer to God, God seemed as far away as ever. The Maggid said that it’s like a father with a toddler. The father calls the child to him, who takes a few faltering steps towards him, but as he gets near, the father moves a few steps away and calls him again, and so on. This is frustrating for the child, but is how he learns to walk. Similarly, God moves further and further away to call us towards Him, but I don’t know how to deal with the lack of self-esteem that results from feeling I have not reached God and am as far away as ever.

I actually spent a lot of time over Rosh Hashanah thinking about what it would mean to accept that God loves me. I’m not sure I came to any great conclusions. I find it easier to see God as punitive than loving, at least towards me, and I’m not sure why or how to change that. I don’t see God as punitive in an abstract, theological sense, or towards other people, but I find it hard to believe He could love me unconditionally.

The other thing I thought about a bit over Yom Tov was abuse (child abuse, get withholding etc.) in the Jewish community. It’s been in the news again lately. I wonder how God can forgive us while it goes on. There isn’t really anything I can do about it, except write about it, which makes me want to get my novel published. On which note, a book I’d ordered, a guide to publishers, editors and literary agents, arrived today, which may help me to plan my next step.

OK, I’m off to get ready for tomorrow, and to see if I can have something to eat and fit in Midweek Twin Peaks before bed.

Prejudice

I’m not sure what I feel about dinner with the rabbi yesterday. It was basically OK. I didn’t say much, but I did say a bit and mostly felt comfortable except when I spilt some water and then worried that I had tried to mop it up in a way that was not permitted on Shabbat, although I don’t know why I got this impression. On the downside, I felt some people were talking about non-Jews in a less-than-respectful way. This kind of casual racism in the frum (religious Jewish) world bothers a lot of people, including me, but it’s hard to know how to challenge it. A lot of Jews seem to have an attitude that Jews have been the victims of prejudice so often that we can’t perpetuate it, which is illogical (as illogical as the parallel view in the woke world that Jews can’t be the victims of real prejudice because many of them are pale-skinned).

It would annoy me in the abstract, but having had a lot of non-Jewish friends over the years, through Doctor Who fandom and the blogosphere, I take it somewhat personally. Plus, the Torah says that all human beings are made in the image of God, and human dignity is a fundamental Jewish value.

There was also some discussion at dinner over whether the mission in life of a Jew is just to study Torah or whether there is room for political engagement (or artistic endeavour, which wasn’t explicitly stated, but was hinted at). I said that it’s impossible to know what an individual’s mission in life is; for one person it might indeed be significant Torah study, but for another it might be something else. Fortunately, the rabbi agreed with me. I did not think to mention an idea I once heard that the descendants of Leah have the role of engaging in pure spirituality, whereas the descendants of Rachel have the role of bringing the spiritual into the physical world, although as I heard this from a Modern Orthodox Rosh Yeshivah, maybe it’s as well I didn’t.

It’s things like this (racism and narrow viewpoints) that make me feel that I will never fully fit into this community, even though it has many aspects I like and appreciate, such as good decorum (Orthodox shuls (synagogues) are notorious for talking during prayers and even Torah reading and for young children running in and out the whole time) and a davening (praying) pace that is neither too fast nor too slow for me, as well as an attitude to davening and Torah study that is serious and committed, but with humour and self-awareness as well as not supposing that everyone is at the same place religiously or working at improving the same practices and character traits. I wish I could find a shul with these positives, but a slightly more modern social attitude. It does seem that a strong sense of “us” can only be inculcated by demonising “them.” I feel that Torah wants us to disprove this, but most Jews are unable to meet the challenge, either with too weak a sense of Jewish identity or negative feelings about outsiders.

One thing I noticed was that when the rabbi blessed his children, as is the norm in the frum world on Shabbat, the rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) blessed them too. I don’t think I’ve seen that in an Orthodox household before.

I got home very late. I spent a little time in Torah study, as I hadn’t done much in the day, concentrating on work. Then I read for a bit, as I was drained and needed some relaxation time before bed, but I was too tired to read for long. I couldn’t sleep when I got to bed, but I was too tired to get up and read and just lay there.

Inevitably, I struggled to get up this morning. I also napped after lunch and had to rush to get to shul for Talmud shiur (religious class). I hurried out of the house with no tie to save time and felt under-dressed in shul. Talmud shiur was OK, but I began to get a headache during Minchah (Afternoon Prayers). It wasn’t a bad one by any means and has mostly gone by now, but it’s left me feeling tired and, bizarrely, craving carbohydrates. I should do more Torah study and do my hitbodedut meditation/unstructured prayer before bed, but I don’t really feel I have the energy, although I don’t feel that I would fall asleep if I went to bed, so I’m uncertain what to do for the next hour or so.

Behind-the-Sofa Scary

(There’s a cliche in the UK about children watching Doctor Who from behind the sofa because it’s so scary, at least for a family programme. For Doctor Who fans, that’s kind of the litmus test of genuine terror.)

I didn’t blog yesterday as not much happened. Today I had weird dreams, overslept and went into a panic about Shabbat (the Sabbath) and the Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals) in the next few weeks. I did some work today. I’m working from home on Monday, but I worried about oversleeping and not working enough, so I thought I would do some work today and tomorrow, but it’s been a bit of a rush. I’m about to do a little bit more, although I won’t do much Torah study today. I might have to leave writing next week’s devar Torah (Torah thought) until Thursday evening. I usually like to have it almost finished by then, so I can just proof-read it and send it, as I’m usually tired from work, but I can’t see how I’m going to get the time. I do at least know what I’m going to say (unlike the week after).

I am going to the rabbi’s house tonight for dinner. I’m a bit nervous about this, although I surprised E by saying that I’m usually OK talking to rabbis without additional social anxiety from their position, just ordinary social anxiety of talking to anyone. I’m not sure why that is, probably because I’ve been talking to rabbis from a young age and I know they’re just people, usually with a corny sense of humour. Usually quite laidback too. I know some people who leave the frum (religious Jewish) community complain of strict upbringings (or abusive upbringings, which is something else entirely), but most frum people I know are laidback, often surprisingly so. I find it’s hard to get frum people to commit to things because they often have a “Whatever, we’ll work it out eventually” attitude. This always seems at odds with how I think religious people should behave, which is precise and even a little anxious. Maybe this is something to do with trusting in God that everything will work out. Or maybe it’s just my Yekkish background. Yekkes (German Jews) are stereotypically precise, punctilious, and the only Jews who are remotely punctual. I’m actually only one-eighth Yekkish, but I feel a strong affinity for the stereotype.

***

E found me an article on autistic burnout! It doesn’t say much I didn’t already know, but it’s useful to show family and it’s reassuring to be told that it’s “a thing.” It’s unclear on the thing I’m unclear on, which is the extent to which autistic burnout is a short-term thing triggered by a few hours of that can be alleviated by a few hours of rest and sleep or a long-term thing somewhat like depression that sets in after weeks or months of stress and can last indefinitely. My feeling is that it can be both, but I don’t think everyone agrees.

***

After I saw my rabbi and told him about my autism, I sent him the article I wrote about being autistic in the frum community. He really liked it and asked if I would like him to circulate it in the community. I’m not sure what I feel about that. I can see pros and cons. I don’t have time to list them in detail (maybe next week), but I can see big pros in starting a conversation about autism and neurodiversity in the local community and maybe finding some more understanding and support at shul (synagogue). On the other hand, telling literally everyone in shul seems scary and awkward, and I could end up defined as “that autistic guy,” at least for a few years until I become defined as “that frum author who writes a lot about sex.”

Dirges in the Dark

I wrote most of this during the day, when I was feeling quite down. I’m posting it just as a record of my emotions, and that I can come out of slumps better than I used to be able to do.

I feel down today, even somewhat depressed. I’ve been a bit self-critical and I’ve been catastrophising a lot. I don’t know why I feel like this suddenly. I guess there are reasons. There’s family members struggling with things; COVID is getting to me, and making me worry when E and I will be able to meet again; I’m stressed about the coming Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals); and I’m probably a bit hurt still from my novel rejection and wondering what my next step is, trying to process that now my intense two weeks covering for J at work is over. So I guess there is over-causation, if anything. Still, I thought I was getting better at emotional regulation and dealing with the down days. I still struggle to understand my own emotions a lot of the time, which doesn’t make dealing with them any easier.

As there has often been a seasonal element to my depression, it could be that as the days get shorter and the weather colder and more inclement (not that we had a particularly hot or dry summer!) I am still going to get more down/mildly depressed, despite no longer suffering general depression. Or maybe it’s my worries about getting through the next few weeks.

I missed E a lot and worried about how we can move our relationship on. There are so many obstacles: COVID, long-distance, finances, dealing with our separate ‘issues’… I worry that more will appear as we progress and can already catastrophise some into existence if I’m not careful. In terms of COVID, it’s not at all clear that the UK will still be allowing visitors from the US over the next couple of months. I worry that the US will become some kind of permanent plague zone that Europeans avoid contact with, like something out of a zombie film, and the type of Americans that refuse to get vaccinated won’t care because they have zero interest in the outside world anyway.

Another possibility is envy, sadly. I’m just feeling the “Will I ever make anything of my life? Will I become a successful writer? (Will I actually get the energy/headspace to write anything else?) How did I become such a professional failure when I did so well at school?” feeling again looking at more successful peers or even younger contemporaries. To quote Crusade, the abortive spin-off from Babylon 5, “When Mozart was my age, he was dead.” I don’t want to be Mozart, or the literary equivalent, but I do want to be able to at least help support E and myself and hopefully even children one day. I’d also like to write something that I can be proud of, something clever, idiosyncratic and unique like the stories I love like The Prisoner, Twin Peaks, The Third Policeman or Ubik. But at the moment I’m too focused on getting through the next couple of weeks to write much, and today everything feels such an effort.

A while back E sent me the link to this Instagram post, saying that there’s a need for my writing in the Jewish community. I look at it periodically when I need encouragement about my writing, but I guess today it just makes me think, “There are already Jewish creatives, why would anyone want to read my writing? I can’t write nearly well enough to capture the conflict between tradition and modernity. My writing’s too humdrum for the secular market and too negative for the religious market. And I don’t know how to get an agent.” And so on, back into catastrophisation.

I managed about three hours of work today, which is probably a minor miracle and I shouldn’t be surprised I can’t write too. Today is a bank holiday (public holiday), but I agreed with J to do a day’s work, split over today and tomorrow. I didn’t really want to do it, but I wanted to show willing, given that I want J to make my job permanent, and I’m aware I won’t work much in September because of Yom Tov (Jewish festivals) and hopefully I’ll want time off in October if E comes here.

I went for a run. It wasn’t very good, but I was just glad to get out, as I felt like going back to bed. I think it did help shift my mood, as did speaking to E in the evening. I feel OK now.

***

It doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to speak to the rabbi about my autism before Yom Tov, which is vaguely annoying, but he’s been away and then I had that not good time when I was covering for J and now it’s nearly Yom Tov. Maybe I can try to speak to him before Sukkot at least.

***

Last night I had a dream that seems somewhat relevant. I was watching some Hasidic men dance. They tried to drag me into the dance, but I didn’t want to join in; however, I didn’t want to go away either, I wanted to watch.

When I awoke, it made me think of Otto Rank, Freud’s pupil who postulated that life divides into the fear of life (fear of individuation) and fear of death (fear of absorption and losing individuality). I want to watch the dance (connect), but I am afraid to join in the mass of dancers (lose individuality). It’s probably about me and the Orthodox Jewish community, my inability to find my place in it and my uncertainty about where E and I will feel comfortable.

***

There seems to be a lot of drunken partying/arguing/fighting going on in someone’s back garden with a lot of noise reaching us despite the lateness of the hour (gone 11pm). It might be a long night…

The Curses of COVID

I set an early alarm because I had a vague magical thinking fear that J would call me to do the Very Scary Task again early today. In the event he did not, thankfully, and I fell asleep again after turning my alarm off. It’s interesting how much magical thinking I’ve had around the VST this week. I don’t usually think of myself as a superstitious or magical thinking person, but I can’t deny the evidence of my own thoughts.

It’s been a fairly tough couple of weeks covering for J and working from home and I’m aware that it’s going to continue to be tough for a while, albeit for varying reasons. Next week I hope to ‘come out’ as autistic to my shul (synagogue) rabbi. I’ve prepared notes of what to say, but I really have no idea how it will go or even what I really expect or hope from the meeting. Then, for unrelated reasons, I’ve been invited to his house for Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner next Friday. I accepted, but only afterwards did I wonder how safe it would be, COVIDly. I mean, the government COVID regulations permit it, but I wonder if I’m being reckless. It’s hard to tell. But the real thing worrying me about it is the usual social anxiety stuff.

E was surprised that I don’t get extra-socially anxious with rabbis than I do with other frum (religious) people. To be honest, I think I’m nervous enough with ‘ordinary’ frum people that there isn’t anywhere else for the anxiety to go, plus I feel I’ve had exposure therapy with rabbis over the years. I have eleven Orthodox rabbis’ phone numbers on my phone (a minyan and a spare), so I do have experience with talking to them. They don’t intimidate me the way they do to some people.

If I get through that, then we’re into the autumn Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals), but I’m trying not to worry about that now, albeit that I’m starting religious preparations for Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year).

This week in shul we read the Torah portion of Ki Tavo (I admit I’m not that likely to get there for this in person). This contains the curses that will befall the Jews if they break their covenant with God. The Talmud says we always read this a couple of weeks before Rosh Hashanah so we can say, “Let the old year with its curses end, and the let the new year with its blessings begin.” I think we’re all looking forward to new blessings after eighteen months of COVID curses, although COVID doesn’t look to be vanishing any time soon.

E and I have both taken COVID very seriously, mostly followed regulations and are both double vaxxed; still, we’re both sick of it and want to get back to normal life, life without masks, travel restrictions and noisy social media arguments about masks and vaccines. We wondered last night how long it can carry on for like this and whether governments are secretly aiming for zero COVID deaths, which seems as unachievable and flawed a target as zero flu deaths. I don’t think the UK or US governments are aiming for this, although the New Zealand government seems to be doing so; I think it’s only possible in a small, sparsely-populated and out of the way country. However, I’ve heard people (experts and callers) on the radio who seem to really want zero COVID deaths. One expert even seemed to want zero COVID infections, on the grounds that infection, even in the young and vaccinated, can lead to long COVID and long COVID is debilitating, therefore the government should aim at eradicating it, presumably like smallpox and bubonic plague. This seems as crazy as vaccine refusal, albeit in the opposite direction.

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine ever getting back to normal. It just goes on and on. I still feel nervous at shul, one of only three or four people still wearing masks now they are no longer mandatory. At the moment E is worried about being able to come and visit me, in terms of fear that the USA might be put on the UK’s red list and Americans banned from entry, and at the moment I couldn’t visit her, because direct travel from the UK is banned, and also because I’ve had the AZ vaccine, which the USA still hasn’t recognised (all of which strikes me as a bit rich, considering how poor vaccine uptake has been in the US; please get your own house in order before criticising others). We just want to spend some time together this calendar year! Is it too much to ask? Sigh. At least we have Skype.

***

My shul is still bringing Shabbat in early, at 6.25pm today, so I didn’t have much time to do things, considering I slept late and struggled to get going. I did my usual pre-Shabbat chores and spent some time on my cheshbon nafesh, my self-reflection on the previous Jewish year. I didn’t get time to work on the short story I planned yesterday or to do much in the way of Torah study. The latter doesn’t bother me much, as I can catch up while I wait for my father to daven (pray) tonight, as his shul isn’t starting until 7.35pm.

***

I just wrote this comment on Ashley’s blog: “My self-esteem has been pretty low since adolescence, maybe earlier. Getting my autism diagnosis earlier this year has really helped, though, inasmuch as I can now see myself as an autistic person who is trying hard with some success rather than a neurotypical person who is frequently failing for no obvious reason.” I don’t think there’s really anything to add to that.

***

I read a Philip K. Dick short story last night that was extraordinarily misogynistic and generally misanthropic (Cadbury, the Beaver who Lacked). It rather made me regret my decision to read rather than just watching TV. Dick had issues with women, to put it mildly (he was married five times). His last completed novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, has a female narrator who is a likeable and interesting character, but most of his other female characters are not, to put it mildly. Still, I wasn’t quite prepared for just how negative the short story would be.

Damage Limitation

I feel burnt out again, unsurprisingly after yesterday. I feel like I’m in damage limitation mode at the moment and will be at least until J is back at work, if not until after all the Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals) are over. I’m going to try to relax tonight and tomorrow. I had chores to do before Shabbat (the Sabbath), but I tried not to do other things, although I did some Torah study. I would like to go to shul (synagogue) tonight, but as my cousin is staying with us for Shabbat, I’m not sure if I’ll go for Talmud shiur (religious class) and Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) tomorrow so I can spend more time with her instead.

In other news, my rabbi (my shul rabbi, not my rabbi mentor) said we could speak and that I should message him next week to arrange time. This is to tell him about my autism/Asperger’s and speak about my place in the community, although he doesn’t know that yet. I feel pretty anxious about it. It doesn’t help that I don’t know exactly what I want from the meeting, I just feel the need to open up to someone in the community so that I feel less alone and misunderstood.

***

In other other news, E and I have been watching the earliest Doctor Who episodes, from 1963 and 1964, and E is becoming a total fangirl. She is mostly enjoying it, but complaining about continuity errors in later stories. Having a girlfriend who was into Doctor Who was not one of my ‘essential needs’ in relationships, but it’s very good that it’s turned out that way. Otherwise, E and I have both been catastrophising about our relationship — not the relationship part, but the external things keeping us apart, like COVID and immigration law. But we both think we will be together in the end, somehow, if we can just hang on.

***

I wrote yesterday about having wanted to make friends online in the past, and it occurred to me afterwards that I do now have what I wanted on my blog, inasmuch as there are half a dozen or a dozen people who read most of my posts and leave friendly and helpful comments, which is what I really wanted from online interactions. So, thank you.

Work, Music, Friends

Work from home is making me exhausted and depressed.

I slept badly last night. I woke up about 5.30am after disturbing dreams, full of anxiety about work and the Very Scary Task (I should probably think of a better name for that here). I realised I had forgotten to tell someone something and that was worrying me. I got up and drank hot chocolate and read Philip K. Dick (We Can Remember It for You Wholesale) for a while, which calmed me down a bit. I went back to bed, but as I was trying to fall asleep, J texted me at 6.30am to check some details. I guess he assumed I get up early for Shacharit (Morning Prayers). I went back to sleep, but didn’t sleep well, with more disturbing dreams. My alarm went at 9.20am and I probably would have fallen asleep again were it not for more work texts (not from J this time). I had breakfast and sent a text to resolve the problem of forgetting to tell someone something, but then J messaged me with another query. It wasn’t hard to resolve, but the whole process of this task is all quite nerve-wracking. I hope I don’t have to do this again next week — or for some time longer, really. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing in advance, and the odds are I will have to do it again next week.

I was very nervous of something going wrong with the Very Scary Task, but no one phoned me with a problem, so I guess it went OK. The main work for today, the data entry, was more tedious than ever. I found it hard to concentrate and I could not work out if that was related to Very Scary Task anxiety; being tired from yesterday and not sleeping well; or just the cumulative effect of doing this boring task for days on end.

I wanted to listen to music while doing the data entry, but I wasn’t sure what. Not the loud rock I usually listen to, because I needed to concentrate. I found some chazanut (Jewish liturgical music) CDs that belong to my parents and thought listening to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur music might get me in the appropriate mindset for those coming festivals, but I discovered that I dislike traditional chazanut as much when listened to as music as I do when listening to it in shul (synagogue). It’s all very emotional and wailing and loud and dragged out… I know some people feel the music and chazanut helps them to pray more intently, but I always get the feeling that the chazan just wants to show off and I would rather spend my time and energy focused on my private personal prayers. Maybe that’s why I struggle with going to shul; it’s certainly why I go to a shul where the focus is very much on personal prayers without much chazanut.

In the end I listened to incidental music from Twin Peaks. Similarly, on Monday I listened to incidental music from Blade Runner while I did the data entry. Incidental music isn’t as intrusive as other music, and evokes the atmosphere of enjoyable TV or film while I’m doing a boring task.

***

Towards the end of work, I started feeling very negative about myself, wondering why I’m doing basic data entry tasks of the kind that would normally be done by an intern when I’m in my late thirties and not being able to work full-time. It got mixed in with thoughts about the Jewish cultural website I wrote about yesterday, some resentment that many of the writers there have gone on to write professionally, or were already professional writers and got a boost, whereas for a long time I wanted to write for them, but wasn’t able to. (I did write a couple of guest posts eventually.) I also felt that a lot of the writers seemed to have mental health issues, but also managed to have families, careers, religious lives, community involvement and creative outlets and I never worked out how they did all of it. In the end, I became a sort of self-loathing troll, posting comments that attacked not others, but myself and wallowed in the misery of so much of my adult life.

I thought I had put the site behind me (it’s pretty much defunct now), but I realise I have such a mixture of thoughts about it. I thought, or at least hoped, I could make real friends there, I had a kind of “friendship crush” on so many of the writers, wanted to be noticed by them and converse with them in the comments. I made a couple of online friends I still sometimes connect with, including one who has been a bit of a writing mentor to me, but those were other commenters, not the writers. But then I remember that once I wrote a comment about being pretty suicidal and a bunch of the writers wrote messages to support me, so I guess they were friendly. I never quite worked out if they wrote it because they like me as an individual or if they just saw “A person is in trouble, we should help!” and it didn’t really matter who I was. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

E found my blog through my comments there, I think, so I guess that’s one tangible positive that came out of it for me.

Thinking about this also makes me realise that I’ve been so focused lately on getting my manuscript ready to try to find an agent, and brainstorming ideas for future projects, that I haven’t actually done any creative writing in ages, even though I have an idea for a short story. I would like to write it, but with the possibility of another week of crazy work next week and then the autumn Yom Tovim (Jewish religious festivals), I’m not sure when I’ll have the time.

***

Aside from work, I went for a walk and did some shopping, which was where the negative thoughts got worse. I finished my devar Torah and skyped E and did a few minutes of Torah study, but that was about it. E is still the biggest positive in my life, even on stressful days.

***

The results from my recent blood test show my lithium level is slightly down. The results say it’s OK, but I thought 0.68 was sub-therapeutic. It might explain why my mood has been down a bit lately. My cholesterol is still a little high, but I don’t seem to be able to shift that much. I know, I should cut cheese, butter and eggs out of my life completely, but I can’t face it. I don’t eat much butter or eggs as it is, and I slashed my cheese consumption and, at the moment, can’t face cutting it further. I hope this doesn’t come back to haunt me one day.

Busier Than I Think

I woke up earlyish (9.00am), probably because I slept so much yesterday. I actually managed to get up, albeit partly because I worried that if I stayed in bed, I would just feel anxious. I spent some time writing some notes about the way autism affects me at shul (synagogue) and in my religious community so that I can speak to my communal rabbi when he gets back from holiday later this week. I’m not really happy with what I’ve written, but it’s a start and I still have time to talk about it with my parents (I already spoke to E), although probably not with my therapist, who is on holiday until next week.

I also spent some time typing up my notes on my “pornography-addicted rabbi” novel idea. Notebooks are good for jotting ideas down, but Word documents are better for moving things around and ordering them. At the moment I have some characters and vague story ideas, but no real plot. Well, I have an idea of where I want to go, but not how I get there. I’m already scared of what publishing such a story would mean for me as a member of the frum (religious Jewish) community, whether there would be any backlash like the backlash around Unorthodox and My Unorthodox Life. I don’t intend the book to be anti-religious (if anything the reverse, but I can see that some people might not see that). However, this seems the best way (well, a way, maybe not the best way) to talk about issues around sex and gender, and around addiction and mental health, in the frum community.

I guess this has become an ‘aspiring writer’ blog, now that it’s not exactly a ‘mental illness blog’ or a ‘fighting for an autism diagnosis’ blog. I probably shouldn’t say much about ongoing projects, but I find it hard to keep total radio silence. If I speak about my projects, I feel I have to follow through with them. I can’t chicken out of writing a novel I’ve ‘trailed’ here. I probably also should call myself a ‘writer’ rather than an ‘aspiring writer,’ but I still feel that I’m not there yet.

***

Despite this, and having also gone for a run, done over an hour of Torah study and Skyped E, I have a vague feeling of not having done enough, and of having procrastinated online (despite my attempt to limit my internet use at the moment) instead of actually relaxing. I really do need to talk to my therapist about this.

Odd Thoughts of an Odd Fellow

I didn’t have a great day today. I overslept, although I rushed and wasn’t particularly late for work. At work I made mistakes, or had mistakes from last week pointed out to me. Work was dull and I was glad that I don’t have to work full 9am – 5pm days in this job. I do about 9.15am – 3.45pm, and I wonder how I would cope if I had to do full days. I drank a lot of caffeine to keep going, although, perhaps worryingly, I’m not sure it was that much more than usual: three coffees, a few teas and some coke zero that J had leftover from his lunchtime meeting. I don’t normally drink fizzy drinks during the week, but I felt I needed something to try to lift my mood a little.

***

It’s weird that I am reluctant to call myself a writer. I’ve written a self-published non-fiction book, an as-yet-unpublished novel, about thirteen years’ worth of blog posts (which I conservatively estimate at around three million words, probably rather more), a few short stories, a bunch of poems and various reviews and articles (not to mention divrei Torah). Yet I feel that because I haven’t been paid more than a few pounds (£25 for an article and probably about £50 in book sales, mostly to people I know in real life) that I’m not “really” a writer.

***

I thought today that I’m impossible to satisfy. I find secular Western society too individualistic, but frum (religious Jewish) society stiflingly conformist. Is there a middle ground? In the Talmud, Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am just for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Avot 1.15) It’s surprisingly hard to put into practice.

***

I watched a mostly humorous episode of The Twilight Zone yesterday. Mr Bevis is, according to the narration, an “oddball” (he may be on the spectrum, but let’s not go there). He dresses a bit like Matt Smith as the Doctor, with a bow tie and jacket. He likes weird things like zither music, crafting model ships, driving a clapped-out thirty year old car, correcting other people’s grammar, and stuffed animals (I couldn’t work out if this meant soft toys or dead animals stuffed by taxidermists. I think the latter). He likes to play with children, but not in a creepy way, because this is 1960. He also has a racist clock, but we’ll set that aside for now.

Mr Bevis loses his job, and indeed has failed to stay in any job for more than six months since he was demobbed at the end of World War II. Not only did he lose his job, he also lost his apartment and his car on the same day. Fortunately, his guardian angel intervened to rectify this — but at a cost of making Mr Bevis lose all his personality quirks and special interests. Because this is television, Mr Bevis decides that he would rather be himself and unemployed, homeless and motor-less, than be someone else with a job, apartment and car.

I thought that this was relevant to me. I also like odd things, or things that other people seem to think are odd, or at least things that don’t fit together properly. Lots of people like Bible study, old TV science fiction or glam rock, but not usually all of them at the same time. But they matter to me. And maybe that’s OK, even if I don’t have a guardian angel.

(I also couldn’t work out why Mr Bevis is trying to get office work he’s clearly unsuited for when he should be a primary school teacher – likes children, corrects grammar, good at crafts. And this is the sixties, so he won’t be forced to do endless paperwork and continual assessment. He really needs to see a good careers advisor.)

The Great Partnership

I have been trying not to go online after Shabbat (the Sabbath) goes out late in the summer (“goes out” is a metaphor for finishing, as Shabbat is anthropomorphised as a person, the Shabbat Queen or Shabbat Bride). However, I didn’t have a great Shabbat and feel the need to offload.

Shul (synagogue) last night was difficult. The previous rabbi, who took a position abroad some years ago, was visiting and the shul was packed with people who wanted to see him. I felt very uncomfortable, both for COVID reasons (even fewer people seemed to be wearing masks this week, as it’s no longer mandatory) and autism/social anxiety reasons. I just felt overwhelmed by the number of people, their proximity to me, and the noise from clapping and banging on tables when previous rabbi led a very noisy and enthusiastic Kabbalat Shabbat service. I felt uncomfortable and I left quickly once the service finished, hoping that previous rabbi didn’t recognise me with my mask on and no glasses, as I didn’t feel able to speak to him.

I spoke to my parents about some important stuff over dinner. The talk went well. I’ll elaborate on some of this below.

This morning I actually woke up early. I got up and said the Shema, perhaps the most important Jewish prayer, which is to be said early in the morning and again at night; I usually say the morning one far too late. But after I said it, I went back to bed. I’m not sure what my thought process was, but I’m pretty sure social anxiety and avoidance was part of it — I didn’t want to go to shul after what happened yesterday. I did think about getting up and just staying at home, but somehow drifted off to sleep again. This meant that I missed when a friend of mine who is visiting her parents in the area knocked on the door. I haven’t seen her since my sister’s wedding nearly four years ago (she is a close friend of my sister and a more casual friend of mine, but I rarely see her now she lives in Manchester).

I had lunch by myself, as my parents were at a friends’ house. I don’t mind that. I read a bit of the latest Doctor Who Magazine (which, despite its flaws, I’m probably going to keep subscribing to). I slept after lunch, which wasn’t particularly sensible, as I don’t feel tired now.

Shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) was still a bit distressing, but not as bad as last night. I mostly followed the Talmud shiur (religious class) afterwards. I fell into a slight depression afterwards. I’m not sure why I feel down and slightly agitated. I probably need to do something relaxing, like watch TV before bed, as Shabbat was so stressful. The book I just started reading, We Need to Talk about Kevin, about a school shooter, is not exactly light reading either.

***

Of the things I spoke to my parents about last night, one is about changing my medication slightly. When I last saw my psychiatrist, she gave me a road map to reduce my olanzapine dose. This would hopefully help me be a bit more awake and lose some weight, without the rapid fall back into depression that happens when I try to come off it completely. However, the last few days I’ve felt somewhat stressed and overwhelmed, culminating in this not very good Shabbat, so I feel nervous of fiddling around with my meds, which often goes badly for me. I’m not sure what I’ll do now; maybe wait a week or so and see how I feel.

I also spoke to my parents about telling my community rabbi about my autism/Asperger’s in the run up to the autumn festival cycle (September this year), which is always extremely difficult. They agreed with me that it would be good to talk to him and suggested that I encourage him to read the article I had published online about being high functioning autistic in the Orthodox community, although I feel I need to make some kind of clear request of him rather than just dump all my negative thoughts on him and walk off. I’ve got some time to decide, as he’s going away on holiday this week.

***

A thought I’ve been wrestling with literally all Shabbat (it came to me in shul on Friday night):

Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tl, in his book on science and religion, The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning, writes the following:

The story I am about to tell concerns the human mind’s ability to do two quite different things. One is to break things down into their constituent parts and see how they mesh and interact. The other is to join things together so that they tell a story, and to join people together so that they form relationships. The best example of the first is science; of the second, religion.

Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.

My first thought about this is, that while it’s probably true in general, halakhic study is a lot more like the first approach than the second. As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote in his classic work Halakhic Man, the scholar of Talmud and Halakhah (Jewish Law), which he dubs “Halakhic Man,” has as much in common with the secular scientist or philosopher (Cognitive Man) than with the mystical religious (Homo Religiosus). Halakhic study is very much about breaking things — laws, concepts, actions — into their parts and analysing them. It’s not really about telling stories or forming relationships, let alone spirituality or homiletics.

The Talmud does not just contain halakhah. A substantial minority of it is aggadah, non-legal material, much of it narrative. However, Orthodox society has come to focus on halakhah as the main topic of study for Jewish men. I believe in some yeshivot (rabbinical seminaries), students are advised to skip the aggadic passages.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, though, beyond noting that my divrei Torah (Torah thoughts are rarely halakhic and more about crafting, if not a narrative, then some kind of homiletic argument. Most divrei Torah are like that, but other people (communal rabbis, certainly) seem to be able to do that and still understand halakhic argument.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, and I’ve been on my computer for an hour (admittedly not writing the whole time) and it’s midnight, so I’ll leave things there for now. I guess it’s just about my feeling of not having a place in the Orthodox community. I wish I had asked Rabbi Sacks about this (somehow) while he was still alive.

The Purpose of Life

Today was not really a good day. I did remember, belatedly, the advice not to give a label which contains a narrative to something abstract, because it creates the thing it describes. In other words, a bad day is just a series of events until you label them “A Bad Day.” You can’t point to a “Bad Day” and see an object sitting there, rather you conceptualise it as a bad day. Still, a lot of stuff seemed to go wrong.

I thought I overslept. I hadn’t, but it meant I felt that I was on the back foot from the start of the day. I woke up out of what was probably on some level an anxiety dream about my shul (synagogue) and possibly about what would happen if I wanted to get married there (although the actual dream was about someone stealing the rabbi’s hat).

Much of the day at work was just boring, sorting through my predecessor’s emails and deleting those which are spammy or trivial. J told me that I had been consistently doing one task wrong, forgetting to record details on spreadsheets. I was recording on one or two, but there were another two to complete. There are so many spreadsheets in this job! It is hard to remember all of them even without autistic multitasking issues. Then I went to the bank, got a quarter of the way there and realised I’d filled in the paying-in slip wrongly as J had given me another cheque after I’d filled it in and I’d changed the spreadsheet, but not the physical slip (multitasking and spreadsheets again). I thought I would correct it in the bank and carried on, but when I got halfway there I realised they have taken all the pens away because of COVID. So I had to go back to the office and tell J what happened, correct the slip and then go out again. I felt like an idiot.

After that, the day went into terminal decline. J wanted some papers that I’d given him and wouldn’t believe that he didn’t already have them. Then he needed some other papers and I couldn’t find them. Eventually we discovered I’d filed them in the wrong folder. Then I photocopied them instead of scanning them, then scanned them as one document instead of two. Then it was leaving time, but I realised I’d forgotten to give J my invoice for July and I’d forgotten that he wants me to work on Tuesday next week instead of Monday (although at least I found out now and not on Monday).

***

Good things-wise, I wrote to my writer friend the other day about tips for finding an agent and she sent me some resources (and a warning to beware of fraudulent agents, which apparently are A Thing). That said, I think my first stop will be one agent E suggested who works with literary fiction, science fiction and fantasy with Jewish themes, so who might be sympathetic both to my desire to write specifically Jewish books and my desire to write literary fiction as well as science fiction and fantasy novels. I had been concerned an agent might want to force me down one path or the other.

The other good thing today was talking to E and hearing some good news, which I will not mention now as it’s still very up in the air. (Before you get too excited, no, we’re not engaged.)

Things did get better and I feel vaguely embarrassed about getting so upset about my work mishaps. I guess it shows that there isn’t such a thing as a Bad Day, merely a narrative about certain incidents in close temporal proximity to each other.

***

I’ve been thinking a lot today about The Black Iron Prison, Philip K. Dick’s gnostic/psychotic (in the literal, psychiatric sense) vision of the world and its politics as supernatural dungeon. And I was going to write about it, but after speaking to my parents and E I recovered from having a bad day and decided I didn’t want to write a melodramatic political post, so The Black Iron Prison will have to wait for another day when I’m feeling down and grumpy.

***

Reading an old blog post elsewhere on the internet, I came across this quote about Rabbi Chaim of Volozyn, nineteenth century Talmud scholar and mystic and founder of the first modern yeshiva (rabbinical seminary). The quote is from his son, Rabbi Itzele Volozyner: “He would routinely rebuke me because he saw that I do not share in the pain of others. This is what he would constantly tell me: that the entire person was not created for himself, but to be of assistance to others, whatever he finds to be in his ability to do.”

This is interesting because, more than almost anyone else (except his teacher, the Vilna Gaon), Reb Chaim embodies the attitude of total focus on Talmudic study as the primary religious practice (or primary practice full stop) of the religious Jewish man. Yet here the focus is on being good to others, in whatever way you can, or even just empathising with them. I suppose it makes me feel that my Jewish life can be worthwhile even if I am bad at Talmud study, if I can help others somehow. Admittedly I’m not great at helping others either, but it’s more achievable, and I do hope that writing and even blogging (and commenting on other people’s blogs) can help.

Normalising Religious Struggle

Yesterday and today I listened to an episode of the Normal Frum Women podcast on Normalizing Religious Struggle. I thought it was a brave episode for opening up the whole idea of religious struggle, whereas usually in the Orthodox world people suppress any religious struggles they are having and don’t talk about them with others.

I did find it interesting that the podcast focused mainly on halakhic and sociological struggles, that is, practical struggles rooted in Jewish law or the Jewish community, rather than theological struggle. Maybe it’s because I’ve had a lot of theological struggles over the years (a while back I listed about a dozen different potential philosophical or textual arguments against God and Judaism, and I’ve wrestled with most of them in my time) or maybe it’s because when I joined the blogosphere around 2005/2006, there was a lot of fierce discussion of theological challenges, particularly evolutionary science (the fallout from the Slifkin Affair[1] was still, well, falling out) and Biblical Criticism (Higher Criticism; Lower Criticism didn’t seem to bother people as much).

Either way, it did make me wonder if people were too scared to voice doubts about the existence of God or the divine origin of the Torah in public or if people simply care more about a practical issue (how women should dress or how to clean vegetables of insects) than anything more abstract. Certainly the “how should women dress?” issue is probably on some level a proxy for deeper, and perhaps partially philosophical, discontent about women’s role in the Orthodox world. This was actually voiced by one woman on the podcast, a lawyer, who felt more respected for her intelligence and professionalism in her non-Jewish workplace than in the Orthodox community.

Despite this, it was a very brave topic to broach, so I thought I would talk about some of my own struggles.

My big halakhic struggle was around 2016-17 (I think… to be honest, that period of my life is a mess of anxiety and despair when I look back it). At this time, my religious OCD was at its height and the whole issue of kashrut, the dietary laws, particularly regarding separating dairy and meat, and the special Pesach (Passover) dietary laws became almost unmanageable to me in the volume and intensity of anxiety they threw at me. It wasn’t until I did exposure therapy that I began to realise that most of the conflicts were imaginary, inasmuch as the halakhic (Jewish law) issues I saw simply weren’t there. Until then, I was consumed almost constantly with anxiety that we (my parents and I) had treifed up (made religiously inedible) our kitchen. I asked almost daily questions of rabbis and the London Bet Din Kashrut Division question service (which was probably not intended to be used that way). Almost everything was OK, but I was terrified of having done the wrong thing, particularly with regard to Pesach (where, to be fair, we had done some things wrong in the past).

I felt that God would punish me for doing wrong, but I was also terrified of having some major fall-out with my parents where I wouldn’t eat in their home. The fear of argument with my parents is telling, as it seems likely that the OCD was largely triggered by our moving house when I didn’t want to move, as well as the fact that I was conscious of still living with my parents in my thirties due to my history mental of illness. (I did in fact move out at one point to try to get things under control.) The OCD made my already existent depression worse and for a while I was deeply depressed and struggling to have any kind of joy in my religious life (or any other aspect of my life, for that matter) and I viewed kashrut and Pesach with a mixture of dread and anger. For a while I became very angry and resentful of God and the calmer religious lives other people seemed to lead. Fortunately, I’m a lot better these days, although I have to be vigilant against falling back into bad habits of checking and questioning; even this week I’ve felt myself slipping slightly and needing to be strong.

My main problem nowadays is sociological rather than halakhic. I still struggle desperately to fit in to an Orthodox world that seems geared up for neurotypical, confident, healthy married couples, not an autistic, socially anxious and sometimes depressed older unmarried person. I would of course suffer in any neurotypical social environment, but the Orthodox world has a lot of specific stressors, from an approach to prayer and religious study that is often louder and more vocal than in other religions to a culture of intricate ritual even in interpersonal interactions. This is compounded by consciousness of being a ba’al teshuva (someone not raised religious who became religious later in life) and my regret at not having gone to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary), even though I doubt I would have been happy there.

Related to the last point is my consciousness of not being able to study Talmudic texts independently or even really to keep up in group discussion, even when I prepare in advance (which I do at least try to do). I do feel like there is something lacking almost in my masculinity, in Jewish terms, from my not being able to study Talmud, something which is only compounded by my failure (so far) to marry and procreate. The fact that I am (I think) reasonably good at understanding aggadic (non-legal) Jewish religious texts is a strange kind of consolation prize, as this skill is not rated highly in the Orthodox community, particularly among men. I used to be able to daven from the amud (lead services), but since moving communities, my social anxiety has kicked in there too and I try to avoid it, so that’s another area where I could have felt that I was fitting in, but don’t and instead seem passive and ‘useless’ (by the community’s standards).

The reality I have come to lately is that my problems are as much due to my faulty autistic brain wiring than the community itself. I struggled to feel accepted in online Doctor Who fandom too, a much more open and less rule-bound environment, so maybe it is too much to ask to feel accepted in the Orthodox Jewish world. As with my religious OCD, my fears are probably more imagined than real. I don’t know how other people at my shul (synagogue) view me, but lately I’ve become more open to the idea that they don’t hate me and think I’m an idiot, which I guess is progress.

A side-light on this comes from Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side, Jonathan Boyarin’s ethnographic study of yeshiva study (“learning”) in a New York yeshiva, which I’ve been reading the last few days. Part of the interest for me is the way Boyarin negotiates his situation being, on the one hand, an ethnographer doing a study project and, on the other, being a Jew wanting to study Torah for its own sake (albeit by his own admission a Jew less Orthodox and strictly observant than the other people he meets at the yeshiva). It’s a kind of hokey cokey of being an insider and an outsider successively or even at the same time. I find it interesting that I understand and relate to my own community better through the eyes of ethnographers like Boyarin or Sarah Bunin Benor (Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism) than I do in person. Maybe that’s the autism/Asperger’s again.

Ultimately, as the podcast stated, Judaism is ultimately a relationship, involving trade-offs and compromises. I’ve never got to the point with Judaism where I’ve walked out — not a trial separation and certainly not a divorce. I suppose that must count for something. Past theological issues notwithstanding, I think I have a deep level of faith in God and Torah that transcends any particular doubts or social awkwardness. The thought of not being Jewish in an Orthodox sense seems barely imaginable, even as I acknowledge that the vast majority of Jews, let alone non-Jews, are happy with living their lives that way. This is my identity in a very deep-seated and secure way, even if I can’t articulate it to others. In some ways, the inarticulacy is the proof of how embedded it is in my psyche; it’s deeper than words.

I feel uncomfortable with much of the discussion around intersectionality, but I feel that the last five months, since my autism/Asperger’s diagnosis, have led me to a re-examination of the “intersection” of my Jewish and autistic identities and a sense that, even if my behaviour and socialisation doesn’t meet the required standards of the community, it is at least the best I could do. Perhaps a better, if darker, image than ‘intersectionality’ is drawn from Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle, which he said would end with the main character, K, being told on his deathbed, that his legal claim to live in the village was not recognised, yet he was permitted to live and work there, an image that combines acceptance and isolation at once.

[1] Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, as he then was, wrote three books on Torah/science controversies, including, but not limited to, creationism and apparent scientific errors in the Talmud. He only quoted accepted mainstream rabbinical sources. He largely accepted modern science and reinterpreted problematic statements in the Torah as metaphorical, and saw those in the Talmud as simply errors coming from the rabbis relying on the science of day rather than being based on a religious tradition that had to be accepted as revelation. This approach is based on major Jewish thinkers like Rambam (Moses Maimonides) and Rabbi S. R. Hirsch and initially gained cautious acceptance even in parts of the Haredi world (ultra-Orthodox), but eventually the books were banned by a number of prominent Haredi rabbis, causing a huge ruckus about both science and Torah and about the limits of rabbinic power that still thunders on in parts of the internet. In the early days of the Jewish blogosphere, where someone stood on the Slifkin controversy became an indicator of how Haredi or ‘modern’ they were.

***

As for today, the morning was taken up with volunteering for the food bank. We were short-staffed again (I guess some of the younger people are still leading summer camps and maybe others are on holiday), so I was glad I went. It was cooler this week and I didn’t get a migraine. I did have to shleppe a lot of stuff, especially as we didn’t seem to have the trolleys we usually use. The afternoon was mostly taken with writing this post, which may not have been the most productive use of my time, but helped me unwind a bit. I also spent an hour or so writing a glossary for the (nearly 100) Hebrew and Yiddish words and phrases used in my novel. I’m not sure how consistent and thorough I was. It’s really intended as a quick reference and not a detailed philological guide! Also, the word ‘Yiddishkeit‘ is really hard to define. But this means that my novel is pretty much ready to go out into the world and try to find an agent and a publisher!

I watched another episode of The Blue Planet and was struck by the penguins: ungainly and even comical on land; graceful and elegant in the water. There is probably a lesson in there about fitting in to your environment, although I’m not sure how it applies to me and shul.

Writing from the Margins

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).

I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper

I struggled to sleep again last night, although the temperature has dropped a bit. I’m not sure why I’m having trouble sleeping at the moment (trouble falling asleep; I have no trouble staying asleep, unfortunately!); maybe it’s connected with the slight uptick of anxiety and irrational (I think irrational) guilt I’ve had lately. Drinking hot chocolate seemed to help, and it’s far fewer calories than eating porridge, which I had been doing when insomniac. I think I’m adjusting to the sweetness, which may not be a good thing.

Work was pretty dull and I felt I was clock-watching even more than usual. I don’t know how people do dull office jobs 9.00am-5.00pm and five days a week. Part of the day was spent looking for invoices that we didn’t have, and which probably don’t exist, which is irrationally more frustrating than if I’d spent an identical amount of time and energy searching for invoices we do have.

I was surprisingly busy when I got home, doing some late research for my novel (see below), cooking dinner (plain pasta, I didn’t have that much energy) and trying to do more Torah study (I do some on the Tube into work), but being too tired to do much, and then feeling vaguely guilty about prioritising novel research over Torah, although I honestly thought there would be a period after dinner where I would feel more alert and less distracted for having eaten before the tiredness set in.

I told E yesterday that I’m vaguely anxious lately, and vaguely anxious about why I’m getting anxious, which I suppose is meta-anxiety (anxiety about anxiety).

***

I’m currently reading Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side, an ethnographic study of a yeshiva (“rabbinical seminary” although many of the students are not intending to become rabbis, and certainly not communal rabbis) in New York by Jonathan Boyarin. It was supposed to plant ideas of incidents or anecdotes for my novel, but it’s not really the same type of institution my protagonist (I can’t really think of him as a ‘hero’ despite/because he’s based on me) attended. It is interesting to read, though.

It did make me wonder whether I misunderstood what yeshiva study involves somewhere along the line, although the institution in the book isn’t the type of yeshiva that I could have studied at, not least because it isn’t residential (the thought of communal living and shared dorms is hugely off-putting). Boyarin spends some time looking at the intersection between the yeshiva and popular culture. He says there are more references to popular culture than would have been the case at a more “right-wing” (=fundamentalist) yeshiva, but at the same time I think references are mainly to popular culture that people grew up with (either before becoming religious or when a child and allowed more freedom), rather than contemporary popular culture they might experience as an adult. In other words, it’s OK to have had access to popular culture, but not necessarily to have access to it now. I’ve noticed this in my shul (synagogue) too (the rabbi referenced Space 1999 this week!). I saw something similar on a blog years ago, where the blogger said that even in very fundamentalist communities where university was forbidden, it was OK, even celebrated, to have gone to university in the past, particularly if you got a prestigious qualification like medicine, just as long as you weren’t currently at or planning to go to university.

Watching Boyarin navigate the multiple levels of meaning and depth (religious, political, social, humorous) in the conversations at the yeshiva, I realise that maybe it’s not surprising that I struggle in similar situations. After all, Boyarin struggles at times, and he isn’t (I assume) on the autism spectrum. And when I say conversations, I don’t just mean the study conversations; even the casual bantering can work on multiple levels and require effort to keep up with it. (I have seen this at shul too.)

Reading the book, I’m brought back to what I think I’ve wanted since university, even if I haven’t always been able to articulate it: a chevra, a group of friends who I really connect with and can feel comfortable talking to and joking around with, like I used to have at school, where there were only about five people I could talk to (out of a school of 1,500), but I was completely unselfconscious with them. This is possibly not something I should be looking to replicate (even aside from Asperger’s/autism).

***

At least E knows what to say to me. Her verdict on Doctor Who: Rise of the Cybermen (new series, 2006): “that episode just sort of seemed like an inferior reworking of Genesis of the Daleks” (original series, 1975).😍

My Name is Luftmentsch

Today was mostly dull, except for a time-consuming bit that made me realise my family history may be even murkier than I thought. That story also involves the awful way mental illness was treated by society in the not-too-distant past (things now are often also bad, but we tend to be somewhat more wary of institutionalising people for decades and just forgetting about them). I don’t really want to go into that story at this juncture, though. Otherwise it involved sitting in a car for about three hours in total, which is something I don’t like much at the moment, and losing work because of misunderstanding what I was cancelling. I am pretty tired now and didn’t do a lot of the things I wanted to do. What I did do was Skype E, which was good.

***

My non-Jewish readers will have been spared the many, many, many articles on Jewish social media and websites this week talking about My Unorthodox Life. I haven’t seen the programme. E told me that it was like The Kardashians, but with formerly-religious-but-now-very-not-religious Jews. I’m only vaguely aware of who the Kardashians are, but I have no real desire to find out more. I didn’t really intend to write about this, not least because writing about what you hate is a surefire way to tell people to watch/read it (Ayatollah Khomeni boosted The Satanic Verses‘ sales more than the publisher’s PR department did) and mostly because the discussion is really repetitive and tedious. However, this article is somewhat wider-ranging than most, looking beyond specific TV programmes or specific laws and attitudes to compare individualist-secular Western society with communitarian-religious Orthodox society, which is something I’ve often touched on here.

The author’s conclusion is similar to the one I have come to after years of feeling on the fringes of both societies: the strengths of each society are also its weaknesses. Orthodox society has a massive social support network that left-wing political parties can only dream of, but it functions by ensuring members signal their acceptance of the society’s values through a degree of social conformity that the secular West would never accept (Moshe Koppel (Judaism Straight Up) writes about this too). Conversely, the secular West offers more individual choice than any society in human history, but a society of extreme individuals is likely to be dysfunctional and uncaring. Without external communal bonds, many people feel little kinship with the needy and at best delegate their care to the impersonal state, and too many people find themselves socially isolated, free to do whatever they want, but without anyone to do it with or with any way of finding bonds of commonality with whoever they might happen to meet.

I feel a bit like a free-rider on both societies (Koppel talks about that too), not really conforming to either ideal, but trying to find the best of both worlds. I am quite individualistic, or at least idiosyncratic (high-functioning autistic people often are), but also I keep halakhah (Jewish law) and I desperately want to find an Orthodox Jewish community that will accept me for who I am, and which I can accept in return. If not a free rider, then I’m trying to find a Lagrange Point where I can be free to do (a lot of) what I want and still be (reasonably) accepted. That’s a bit of a simplification, as I do want to keep Jewish law, I just struggle to keep the social mores, as well as sometimes following minority opinions, particularly doctrinally.

It’s not really an abstract issue, but a practical one that appears time and time again as I navigate things like Yom Ha’atzma’ut observance, dating, or creationism vs. evolution. Above all, I want the intellectual freedom to write books dealing with Jewish subjects without feeling obliged to “prove” the “correctness” of Orthodoxy, and to be able to deal with difficult, shocking subjects, like pornography addiction in the frum (religious Jewish) community in my most recent writing idea. Although, forget my rabbi, I’m worried enough about my parents finding out about that one.

I guess the parallel for me isn’t My Unorthodox Life, but Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev, about a young Hasidic boy who is driven to be a serious artist in the Western tradition, including painting nudes and crucifixion scenes, and gets rejected by his community as a result (the sequel novel The Gift of Asher Lev sees him somewhat re-accepted into his community).

Creativity in the Frum Community

I went to bed late, unsurprisingly when the fast didn’t go out until after 10pm. I don’t know if it was the heat or the fact that I slept so much during the day or the fast disrupting my body’s natural rhythms or the fact that I hardly did anything all day or all of the above, but I did not sleep. Not one wink! About 4.00am, the neighbourhood dogs started a barking contest and I had to shut all the windows despite the heat (although I never leave my main windows open for fear of burglars). At 4.40am I finally decided that I might as well get up and start the day in the hope that I might get an early night this evening.

This was not the best start to my Hebrew birthday! My Hebrew birthday falls on the nineteenth of July this year. My secular/Gregorian birthday is the twentieth, although we’re really celebrating on Wednesday as I have shiur (religious class) tomorrow evening.

I managed to stay awake at work; coffee was drunk, more than usual. I stayed awake even though the tasks today were very boring: copying and pasting from a spreadsheet to a Word mail merge and deleting old emails from my predecessor. I was glad that in the afternoon I could listen to music again, as the Three Weeks of mourning are over, as I needed help getting through it.

I went home on the Tube today as J isn’t driving to work now lockdown is officially over. I was glad to be able to read on the journey home, which I couldn’t do in the car, and not to have to listen to talk radio. Mask compliance was very bad on the Tube today, unsurprising as there are no signs up saying that masks are actually still mandatory on it.

I shaved my Three Weeks beard off this afternoon, so I no longer look like a bohemian and/or religious extremist. I Skyped E and had dinner with my parents, watched Doctor Who and will shortly go to bed as I feel very tired and ill (headache, nausea).

***

E sent me a link to something on Instagram the other day. I could read the post, but not the comments, as I’m not on Instagram. It said something I’ve thought for a long time, that rather than complain about the misrepresentation of Orthodox Jews in the media (I mean in fiction here (novels, TV, films), not the news media, which is a whole other problem), the Orthodox community should produce writers, directors, producers and so on who can create stories of their own set in the frum (religious) world — but that these stories should be real i.e. show the frum world in its complexity and with its faults, not just the positives in “soft focus.” E said the comments showed a lot of support for this.

As I say, I’ve thought this for years, and I’ve thought it long enough and hard enough to try to become one of those writers (we’ll see how that goes…). I worry whether the Orthodox world puts enough value on fiction and creativity generally for a whole wave of Orthodox creators to take off. There has been some movement in this direction, but there’s a long way still to go.

I do feel that I want to move on with my novel. I feel I’ve done as much as I can do to it without outside help from an editor. I do really just want to get it published so I can see if writing for a living, or at least a meaningful addition to my income, is going to work. This then ties into wanting to earn more money so I can marry E (partly to pull my weight in the household, but also because immigration is going to be really hard on our combined income level).

I think I also finally feel in a state of ‘flow’ first time in a long time, perhaps in my whole life. Writing is hard work, but I feel that I’m thinking of ideas and finding the words to say them. Dating long-distance is hard, but our Skype dates and texts flow very naturally. Things feel “right” at the moment in a way that I’m not used to.

Shabbat Hazon and Tisha B’Av (Mood Diary, Not Another Religious Post)

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was OK, except that I did not manage to fall asleep until 3am on Friday night, possibly because of the heatwave, so I overslept and missed shul in the morning again.

I went to shul (synagogue) for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and Talmud shiur (religious class), then went again after seudah for a pre-Tisha B’Av drasha. It was good, but I felt self-conscious not just in a blue shirt, but no jacket or tie. I think I could have got away with no tie, but I should have worn a jacket. My parents said I would be too hot and I agreed, but deep down I knew that everyone in my shul would be wearing a jacket even if they took it off on reaching shul. Also, the rabbi had said something about my wearing a blue shirt during the Talmud shiur — not critical, but it made me feel self-conscious.

I didn’t have a low chair for Tisha B’Av and was planning on just sitting on the floor (Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem; in Judaism, sitting low down or on the floor is a sign of mourning). Someone lent me a low chair, but I didn’t want to use it. I’m not sure why. I was a little worried it was higher than permitted, but I think mainly I just felt too self-conscious by that stage: was he being friendly or did he think I was a total am ha’aretz? And my non-leather trainers (not wearing leather shoes is another mourning custom) weren’t particularly comfortable either, although that could have been from sitting on the floor. I also got confused too about when to wear a COVID mask, and realised that I gave my mother mistaken instructions regarding end of Shabbat ceremonies when Tisha B’Av starts immediately afterwards.

Along with this, I couldn’t really follow Eichah (The Book of Lamentations, read on Tisha B’Av). I don’t know why I’ve found it so hard to engage with it the last few years. I just can’t follow or connect. To be fair, I find the Hebrew quite hard to translate in my head, but even following along seems to be hard. I just can’t concentrate that much at 10pm, especially in a heatwave and while sitting on the floor (and feeling socially awkward). Then in my shul we do kinot (laments) to ourselves, really quickly rather than slowly and communally as in my old shul. I read some kinot in Hebrew without really connecting with the poetic Hebrew, so I switched to English (really the only time of the year where I say set prayers in English), but still ran out of time. I did the last kinah at home, in Hebrew, but looking at some of the English, which felt a bit better.

As usual after Shabbat when I’m in shul I helped to fold up the tablecloths, but I’m so bad at that that I feel I would be better off not helping, except that it feels wrong to just walk out without helping. I was reminded of something I said on Ashley’s blog last week about autistic people wanting to help, but actually just getting in the way.

I struggled to sleep again last night, because of the heatwave, because of creative thoughts I kept having that I kept getting up to write down, and perhaps because shul had left me feeling disquieted. Perhaps consequently I overslept today, and when I woke up, I was not able to get up for a long time. I felt utterly drained again, and perhaps somewhat depressed, and aware that I didn’t want to break my fast until halakhic midday, a little after 1pm. I missed Shacharit (Morning Prayers. I think I finally got up about 2.30pm, made havdalah (on tea) and had something to eat. I felt a bit better after that, but I did feel that I wasn’t quite in the right mindset for Tisha B’Av, but also that I was scared to get into that dark mindset. I read Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust for a bit (a book I’ve been reading only on Tisha B’Av; in about five years, I have not finished it yet, although I might try to finish the few remaining pages before next year) and listened to a Zoom talk on antisemitism via my shul. I also went to a Zoom shiur (religious class), again through my shul, but the organiser hit “Mute all” and forgot to unmute the speaker’s computer, so it was inaudible. Someone posted in the chat to say there was no sound, but it took a while for someone present at the shiur to notice and unmute it.

I feel like I don’t find Tisha B’Av as meaningful as I used to, and I don’t know why. Not fasting (because of the danger of fasting while taking lithium tablets) is probably a big part of it. Fasting used to make me ill (headache, nausea, sometimes vomiting), but not fasting feels like not really participating. I tended to avoid shul during the day even pre-COVID, because I don’t want to have to turn down a mitzvah because I’m not fasting. Plus, I often experience burnout after the night of Tisha B’Av from the shul experience (as much social anxiety as religious devotion this year, as I said above) and then crash on the morning and struggle to get up, especially as I try to fast until halakhic midday. Or maybe not being depressed means that Tisha B’Av is not the day that I most connect with emotionally any more, the one where I can easily get into the right state of mind. To be honest, I feel like as a general rule I’m not as connected to the festivals and fasts as I’d like to be, and I don’t know how to change that. I spend so much of holy days either worried about social interactions or sleeping and trying not to oversleep that religion struggles to get in there.

I did write a Tisha B’Av thought, on the suggestion of my rabbi mentor that it would make the day more meaningful for me. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, though. In the end I posted it here, although it’s not really a good match for my blog, but I don’t want to send it to my devar Torah mailing list as it doesn’t seem right for there either — maybe not quite frum (religious) enough and a bit too daring.

King David’s Anxious, Depressed Army

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.

(Not) Bad Day

My day got off to a bad start. I overslept and felt burnt out and struggled to get going. I just missed my train, then got on the wrong train (going on the wrong branch of the Northern Line), but didn’t realise until two stops after the lines diverged. Then I got lost in Euston Station trying to find the right branch and get to work. I was fifteen minutes late for work in the end, although fortunately J didn’t object (or say I was an idiot when I told him why I was late). Then I made a mistake writing a receipt.

At this stage I was ready to label today as a Bad Day, but I remembered something I heard a few days ago from Kayla Levin on the Normal Frum Women podcast (which I listen to sometimes despite not being a woman and possibly not being normal) about being wary of creating narratives that have no objective measure. In this case, I can’t objectively see a “Bad Day,” it’s just a label I put on a series of events that I could understand and narrate differently.

So I tried to see it just as an ordinary day with some bad things, and I think I did OK with that. It wasn’t a great day, it was a dull and boring day at work followed by a Doctor Who episode I’ve never liked (New Earth) and distractingly noisy neighbours when I Skyped E in the evening, but not necessarily a universally Bad Day. And I enjoyed Skyping E.

***

On my blog and other people’s blogs, I shy away from controversy, particularly politics. I keep quiet rather than voice opinions that I feel others may disagree with. Yet, when I think about the type of fiction I want to write, I think I’m increasingly drawn to things that might arouse controversy and even “cancellation.” I can’t work out if I’m actually a secret controversy-hound, or if everything nowadays is politicised and there are no “neutral” subjects any more. I guess I want to write about things that interest me, things that make me feel emotional (positive or negative emotions), and to deal with topics where I’m trying to work towards some kind of understanding of a complex situation. Often those things lead to things that are controversial.

Then this evening I read an article about diversity readers (people who read a manuscript to critique its portrayal of some kind of minority identity). I had already heard about this, but I can’t make up my mind if they’re positive or not. I can see the advantage of weeding out egregious errors and pointing out if someone has written something grossly offensive, but I worry about a drift towards banning writers from imagining what it’s like to be someone else, someone very different, which I think is an important part of being a writer, not to mention a reader of fiction. As Lionel Shriver said, this will end in the banning of all writing that isn’t autobiography, because we can never really know what other people think.

Looking at my own writing about a high-functioning autistic character, an autistic diversity reader might see my novel as not reflecting their experience… but it’s based on my unique experience of autism, mixed in with artistic licence and plot necessity. I haven’t captured all of my experiences, partly because I’m not a perfect writer, partly because it’s impossible to capture a complex life in 80,000 words. I’m sure my other characters are open to criticism from an identity politics point of view, and up to a point I would work with criticism, but beyond a certain point it’s my novel, my characters and my plot, not the diversity reader’s.

Just to show how difficult it is to present an “authorised” version of someone’s identity, when the film of Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience came out, set in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community in the UK, a lot of online American Jewish commenters complained that the characters were constantly wishing mourners a “long life.” “Jews don’t do that,” they said. Except that wishing mourners a long life is a very established custom across the Anglo-Jewish community, from the frum (religious) to the very non-religious. It just wasn’t a Jewish custom they were aware of, because they were so focused on Judaism in America and maybe Israel representing the Jewish experience everywhere. An American Jewish diversity reader might have criticised Alderman for writing something that was true to her experience of Jewish life in the UK. I think this shows how difficult it is to judge whether a depiction of an individual or community is “acceptable.”

Writer’s Thoughts and Religious Styles

I mentioned yesterday that I’ve had the idea for a while that someone should write a novel about pornography addiction in the frum (religious Jewish) community, but that I didn’t think I was the person to do it. Except that the idea has roosted in my head overnight and now I find myself thinking up supporting characters and details, like, “What if he has a feminist teenage daughter who is struggling with Orthodox gender boundaries and her father’s addiction tips her over the edge into stopping being religious?” So I wrote some notes in my ideas notebook to one day come back to when I’m looking for a project. It’s a scary topic to even think about writing about, though, far more so than my thoughts about a Jewish fantasy/time-travel series of novels.

One of the reasons I was always reluctant to go down the route of writing fiction (for publication or for fun) was the fear that I would eventually (and probably quite quickly) run out of inspiration. Related to this was a belief that a “real” writer would intuit a story in its entirety from the start without really needing to work on it. I realise now that ideas are regularly floating through my head ripe for development and in the past I’ve quite deliberately pushed them away for fear of where they would lead, in terms of feeling the need to write them and the potential for failure inherent in that. I also realise that even “real” writers have to work on their stories and sometimes significant things need to be changed quite late in the writing process.

Of course, that doesn’t make writing less scary, particularly when the ideas that find me sometimes seem to have to do with difficult, rarely-discussed subjects like abuse or addiction, but I suppose it’s the “not being discussed” element that makes me want to write them, because I want to read those books, but they don’t exist (yet).

Just to note why this might be important, I just looked on Aish.com, a popular Orthodox Jewish inspirational site, and found five articles on pornography addition in the frum community, three from the point of view of the addict and two from the point of view of the spouse. So, it is out there, whether we want to admit in the frum community or not.

***

I spent nearly an hour working on redrafting my novel (my current one). Initially, I tried to work for an hour as usual, without much success, as I procrastinated online. I switched to intense twenty minute blocs of writing interspersed with online breaks. It seemed to work better that way. I did about fifty-five minutes of work. I would have liked to have made it to a round hour, but I was at a chapter break before a long passage that would take more than five minutes to read and redraft and too tired to keep going beyond that.

Redrafting seems to be going quite quickly. I’m not sure if that’s good or not. It’s good that I don’t seem to need to change much, but maybe I should be changing more and I just can’t see the flaws in my writing because I’ve spent so long working on it (getting on for two years by this stage).

***

I wrote the following in my devar Torah (Torah thought) for this week (for those of you on my mailing list, consider this a sneak preview):

In a lecture entitled Religious Styles,[1] Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik describes Torah transmission as being two-fold.  There is the aspect of learning halakhah, the details of the various Jewish laws.  This can be learnt from any scholar or from a book.  However, there is also the aspect of learning how to develop “a Torah style of living,” to find the unique way that God wants you, and you alone, to live a Torah-based life, and this can only be learnt “by osmosis” from attendance on a personal teacher.  Even then, because style is ultimately unique and individualistic, the real creation of a religious style has to be done alone, through the experience of living a Jewish way of life.  In particular, it is only by developing a unique religious style that one can develop happiness, meaningfulness and satisfaction with Judaism, even ecstasy, and it is these that allow a person to transmit a Jewish way of life to his or her children – who can then develop their own unique style based on what they receive.[2]


[1] In Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Morality: Essays on Ethics and Masorah

[2] Rabbi Soloveitchik, Halakhic Morality pp. 196-201

This passage helped me to understand my own feelings about Judaism, the way I feel that I do what is required of me, at least as far as I can, given my “issues,” but somehow feel a lack of something “more.” I think what I lack is the sense of having my own religious style, what Judaism means to me, and the distinctive way I live it. Maybe I’m so allergic to contemporaries who talk about “MY Judaism” (as if there were no objective content to Judaism) that I’ve over-compensated, or maybe I haven’t had a close enough relationship with rabbis and mentors. Certainly for a long time now I have felt that it is this, the close contact with great scholars and righteous people, that I feel that I missed out on by not going to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary), as much as the actual content I would have learnt there. Or maybe I’m a work in progress. Although he doesn’t say it explicitly, Rav Soloveitchik could be read as implying that developing a religious style is a work in progress across a lifetime as personality develops.

I am trying to convince myself that it is OK to have my own unique relationship with Judaism, which sometimes means doing things differently to my community and can mean doing things like writing fiction that aren’t traditionally seen as religious. Including potentially writing about Jewish pornography addicts.

Inappropriate

I was slow to get going again this morning, although not surprised as I did quite a bit yesterday. As I messaged to E, I was probably feeling a little down and looking for a reason to justify feeling like that, as nothing that I felt vaguely upset about was really enough to make me feel down. They were just explanations after the event. I think I was probably just exhausted. I don’t always find it easy to tell the difference between depression and exhaustion (alexithymia), which is something I need to bear in mind in the future.

***

Shiur (religious class) was very good, except that right near the end someone asked a broad question about academic Biblical criticism that was only tangentially related to the topic of the shiur. It took the teacher five minutes to deal with the topic even in a brief way, as it was such a massive question and so unrelated to what she had been talking about, and it ate up the end of the shiur. I was left feeling that I hadn’t really heard or understood her final point, even though what I did process was fascinating and I would have liked to have heard more, or understood better.

Being on the spectrum, I’m not always good at sudden changes of topic and don’t like it when people ask irrelevant questions, which seems to happen a lot in shiurim. I’m not sure if Jews are particularly bad at sticking to the topic or if lots of people do this and I’m just around groups of Jews more than I’m around other groups of people.

I was also left with a feeling of perhaps inappropriate responsibility again (as happened last week), as the teacher suggested one (very good) book on biblical criticism that I have read, but I wasn’t sure whether it was appropriate to recommend one that I’m reading at the moment that also deals with biblical criticism from an Orthodox viewpoint. I wrote the name of the book in the chat section on Skype, but then felt that it wasn’t appropriate and didn’t send it. In retrospect, that might not have been the best thing to do.

***

I spent some time working on my novel, about an hour of redrafting, excluding procrastination. There wasn’t much procrastination compared with the past, which is especially good as redrafting is tiring and the chapter I was redrafting brings back a lot of negative memories, almost triggers.

I actually dreamt about one of my stories last night, not the novel I’m currently working on, but the one I’m jotting down ideas for as they percolate into my brain. I guess it shows I’m thinking about my writing a lot and taking it seriously.

I also feel a bit more reassured about being able to write about sensitive topics while remaining in the frum (religious) community from something I heard today. Ashley Blaker is a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) comedian (I actually see him in real life sometimes as he lives in the same area as me) who has a comedy series coming up on BBC Radio 4. I heard a trailer for it today and it had a joke which was… surprising to hear from someone the Haredi community (about his teenage son trying to use the satnav to access PornHub). It occurred to me that Blaker gets away with a lot of stuff lightly making fun of Judaism, whereas I would not go that far. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t consider the Haredi community his audience, although he has performed in Modern Orthodox settings, so he can get away with a lot. I don’t really see the Haredi community as my audience either (people in the community tend not to read books written by outsiders or not approved by their rabbis), so I should be OK. Although I wouldn’t write about PornHub. Actually, there probably is a novel to be written about a frum man struggling with pornography addiction, having read several articles about this exact issue from the point of view of both the addict and his wife. I’ve felt that for some time. However, I don’t think I would have the knowledge, ability or guts to write it. I think it would take a lot of courage to write about that even from a secular point of view, let alone an Orthodox Jewish one. There are so many mines you could step on there…

Poem: Service of the Heart

I’m not going to blog about today, because not very much happened. A number of my blogging friends post poetry. I actually went through a phase of writing poetry a number of years ago. I have no intention of writing more poetry or posting what I wrote in the past, but one poem was insistently in my mind this afternoon, and I was curious to see what response it would get. I don’t consider it a great poem, but I do like what it’s trying to say, and I wondered how clearly I’d said it.

I should say in advance that most of the first stanza and some of the second is a reasonably accurate translation (by me) of Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh (I Will Build a Sanctuary in my Heart), a liturgical poem by Rabbi Eliezer Azikri, a sixteenth century poet.

EDIT: WordPress has messed up the layout (stupid blocks); the second stanza should start with “Were this son of Azikri”.

Service of the Heart

Not quite five hundred years ago

The kabbalist Eliezer wrote:

“I will build a Temple in my heart

For His glorious majesty,

Place an altar there for His splendour,

Take for the everlasting flame

The fire of Yitzchak’s binding

And for a sacred offering

Bring up to Him my unique soul.”

Were this son of Azikri

To take up his quill today

He would surely write instead:

“I will build a Temple in my heart

For His glorious majesty,

Place an altar there for His splendour,

Take for the everlasting flame

The fire of my inner passion

And there I shall serve as High Priest

And deliver my offerings.”

Noise Pollution

Well, I made it to shul (synagogue) over Shabbat (the Sabbath), for Friday evening, Saturday morning and Saturday afternoon. I was there for the start of Shacharit (Morning Prayers) on Saturday morning and even helped set up (we were praying outside as the weather was good so that we didn’t have to wear masks). In the afternoon I followed parts of the shiur (Talmud class), although we covered more ground than I expected and went on to material I hadn’t prepared for, not that preparation always helps me follow any better. Also, even though I haven’t made many close friends at shul, I feel that quite a lot of people there know my name and will say “Good Shabbos” (typical Shabbat greeting) to me and seem pleased to see me, so I think on some level I’m accepted there.

I also went for a walk, did some extra Torah study, played (and lost) two games of Rummikub with my parents and did a little bit of recreational reading (still the James Bond novel Moonraker). I’ve kind of accepted that the way I live my Shabbatot, there isn’t much time for recreational reading. I don’t seem to have much time for recreational reading in general at the moment, because I’m prioritising Torah study, because I don’t travel home from work on the Tube (which used to be a reading time) and because I find I’m often exhausted in the evening and watch TV instead of reading. I grab brief moments to read a few pages over lunch or before bed.

I got to bed at 1.00am, which is late, but not so surprising when Shabbat didn’t finish until about 10.30pm. I avoided turning on my computer after Shabbat, which is what can keep me up until stupid o’clock in the morning, that and watching TV (I watched an episode of The Simpsons, but nothing longer).

I woke up late today (11.00am), but didn’t feel fatigued or burnt out, so I’m counting this as a success.

***

Today was good. I did some Torah study, went for a run (not brilliant stamina, but it was hot), did a little over half an hour of work on my novel despite an exercise headache and the distraction of loud music from outside (see below). Then I had a virtual lecture/tour about the Medieval Bible/Talmud commentator Rashi. It was interesting, but I had to shut all the windows to shut out the noise so that I could hear, which made me feel ill from the heat (or more ill, as I already had an exercise headache). Afterwards I wrote some emails. I worry that frustration from the noise made me somewhat abrupt in the emails. That and the fact that I felt I was running out of time this evening and just needed to stop procrastinating and write the emails. In particular, there was one to a friend who seems to be drifting towards divorce judging from her recent emails and I don’t really know what to say to her, or how serious her concerns are — is she just telling me to let off steam or is it a “near the end of her tether” situation? I’m not good at reading these things.

I did a lot, but felt like I was running out of time, and felt ill from the exercise headache and noise. I’m pretty exhausted now, and frustrated and ill from various factors (including the continuing noise) and in a weird way, I feel I did both too much and too little today, being hampered by the noise and the virtual tour being at a slightly awkward time, as well as my propensity for getting exercise headaches. I had a Skype call with E too, but felt that I wasn’t fully engaged, partly from the late hour and the noise outside.

***

I realised that a disproportionate amount of my divrei Torah (Torah thoughts) deal with the question of individuality and the relationship between the individual and society. It seems a fundamental question to me in a religion which believes in the sanctity of the individual as the image of God, but also in the collective as the source of religious authority and locus of religious life. I had an idea over Shabbat of a triangular map of Jewish (or general?) religious life with God at the top and the individual and the community in the bottom corners. Sometimes the community tries to absorb the individual, or the individual tries to leave the community, or to leave God, resulting in the triangle getting bent out of shape. But I’m not sure where I’m going with this.

***

We had a neighbour who was playing really loud music today, either in the garden or with the windows open. They had some kind of party going on, with a lot of crowd noise too by the late afternoon. I could hear it with the windows shut (through double glazing), and I don’t want to shut the windows in this weather. During the afternoon I had to have the windows shut, fan going and still could hear the bass loud enough to stop me thinking clearly. It’s not an immediate neighbour, but someone down the street and in the street behind us, so it’s hard to work out who it is to complain, not that I would have the confidence to complain (just as we never complained about our Haredi neighbours’ illegal minyan in the lockdown). I tend to be sensitive to noise at the best of times. In our old house, we had a neighbour who would hold a charity concert in his garden once a year and would always warn us in advance, so I’m a bit annoyed. Things seem to have stopped now, but I worry it will happen again. I think we’ve had excessive noise in the past. We say we’ll complain, but we never do. I guess that’s very English.

Knots

The day started badly with a number of minor irritants, the worse of which was somehow tearing off one of the fringes on my tallit (prayer shawl) – each corner is supposed to have four strings looped and knotted five times leaving eight strings hanging at the end, and I think I must have stood on one that was trailing and moved and — snap!

Work was OK, but was cut short today as J needed to go to a funeral (a distant relative). I think the work for me to do comes in to the office periodically through the day, so he can’t just give me a list of stuff to do in the morning, he has to keep giving things to me during the day as they appear or as he works on them, so when he leaves, I leave.

I got home early because of this, but spent a lot of time trying to tie the strings from an old pair of tzitzit (small prayer shawl undershirt) onto the tallit. I just got in a mess. A rabbi showed me how to tie tzitzit once and it seemed easy enough under his supervision, but every time I try to do it, I just get in a mess. It’s possible the problem is that I try to tie strings that have been used before and are all twisted and kinked. I think it’s going to be easier just to find a Judaica shop that will repair it, whatever the cost. I think I like the idea of being someone who can tie tzitzit more than the reality. Like, “Look, I’m frum! I can’t understand Talmud, I’m too socially anxious to lead services any more, I never kept up my leining, but I can tie tzitzit!”

Between the tzitzit and spending a lot of time today brooding about antisemitism and what (little) I can do about it (see below) I feel I wasted the day; it’s another day when I haven’t really sat down to do any work on my novel(s). Possibly I should have done that instead of going for a walk this evening; I just wanted to get out while the weather was good and exercise.

***

I’m still thinking a lot about Israel and the recent explosion of antisemitism, which is continuing even though the latest Gaza conflict is over. So many Jewish newspaper articles and blogs say that Jews must all speak up to defend ourselves in the court of public opinion. I feel like a coward, but I know if I write, I will get into arguments, and I don’t feel strong enough to cope with that. I’ve done it before and I’ve been hurt without changing anyone’s mind significantly (although I can’t deny that I had some effect). I’m told I’m a good writer, but I’ve never felt myself to be a good polemicist, and polemic is what is apparently wanted. Polemic makes me sick, and if I see anything too strident, I take the opposite position, even if it’s not something I would normally agree with. Even pro-Israel polemic makes me uncomfortable. I think Israel has a right to defend itself, but it isn’t beyond reproach. But there is no room for nuance any more.

Part of me wants to be a fearless truth-teller like George Orwell (one of my literary heroes, despite our political differences), but I also want to be liked, or at least not to be called a Nazi, and these things do not go together. I get upset about things and want to shout out, but then I worry about the consequences and stay quiet. It’s not a good combination. Orwell said that writers should be politically engaged, but shouldn’t tread the party line (any party line), but then Orwell never got involved in a flame war on Twitter.

Most of the Jewish blogs I read have not said much about this situation, and I wonder if this is wise or not. I feel that the number of Jews in the world is so small, and the negative stereotypes so embedded after two thousand years or more, that it is impossible to be heard. Some antisemitic pop stars and “influencers” apparently have more followers on Twitter or Instagram than the total number of Jews in the whole world, several times over, so it is hard to see how a few Jews can reach so many people. This is defeatist of me. If Judaism is about anything, it is about the ability of a small number of people to change the world. But just posting the I-word makes me anxious that I’m going to get abusive comments. Writers like Moshe Koppel and Ze’ev Maghen say that the correct response to antisemitism is to be a more engaged Jew, which is true, but hard to do when people are calling you a Nazi.

It would be nice to claim that my Jewish life is all quirky rituals like tying knots in tzitzit string, happy days like Shabbat and Yom Tov, and the search for meaning in prayer and Torah study, but it is also worry about my family and friends (literal and metaphorical) in Israel, it’s stuff getting shouted at me in the street, people throwing pennies at me, it’s wondering whether I should take my kippah off in public (as my uncle suggested yesterday). It’s worrying whether one day I’ll be one of those “Religious [read: Visible*] Jew Stabbed in the Street” news stories that never seem to trouble the non-Jewish press too much. It’s wondering whether I’m more likely to be attacked by skinheads or Guardian readers (spoiler warning: I think there are more Guardian readers than skinheads in the UK). It’s wondering where the next Holocaust will be: Israel, Europe or the US, or all at once.

*An article in one Jewish paper (before the latest violence) wondered how much the rate of antisemitic hate crime would rise if all Jews dressed like Orthodox Jews — in other words, if more secular Jews were visibly identifiable as Jews to non-Jews.

Eating Out; and Self-Esteem

I got up late again, burnt out and depressed, the latter worsened by reading stuff about antisemitism and about Islamism. I feel that there isn’t much I can do about this and all the other bad stuff in the world. This is in diametric opposition to the “You can change the world!” attitude on social media and elsewhere. I feel the history of the last hundred years or so indicates that small groups can indeed change the world, but mostly if they’re well-organised and ruthless, like the Nazis and the Bolsheviks. I’m not sure that nice, contemplative, middle of the road people can do much.

Over lunch I watched a video about having a “growth mindset” rather than a “fixed mindset.” I was wary of this, because, like a lot of social psychology research, it’s questionable to say the least. Still, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to learn to think more flexibly, but the video didn’t really help with that. It was very basic and introductory and didn’t tell me a lot that I hadn’t heard from other places. I suppose we’re supposed to buy the presenter’s books to find out more.

I went for a walk and picked up my repeat prescription, and worked on my devar Torah for the week. It’s OK, but I think the ending needs work, although I needed a break from it after nearly an hour. Hopefully I’ll finish it off tomorrow or Thursday. I filled in an over-complicated contact form at Lulu.com to ask for help changing the price on my self-published non-fiction Doctor Who book. I want to change the price, which should be a simple matter, but the website says I need to finish the design stage before I can revise prices and I don’t know why it is seeing the design as unfinished. I got an automatic reply saying I don’t need an ISBN to sell my book on Lulu.com, which had nothing to do with my question! So I had to reply again, pasting my original complaint in. I worked a little bit on my (second) novel, but didn’t have much time before having to go out for dinner.

We (me, my parents, my sister and my brother-in-law) went to a restaurant for dinner. I hadn’t been out to eat in well over a year. The food was good (kosher Chinese). I was slightly worried about the lack of vegetarian choice. I only eat meat on Shabbat and Yom Tov (Sabbaths and festivals). Because of the prohibition of serving meat and dairy at the same meal, kosher restaurants serving meat have limited vegetarian options (no cheese or milk), plus culturally vegetarianism isn’t a big thing in frum (religious Jewish) circles. So there were only three vegetarian main dishes on the menu (which is actually two dishes more than this restaurant had last time I went there!) and it turned out that the one I wanted wasn’t available. Instead, I picked the “lettuce wrap” which turned out not to be any kind of wrap, but fried mixed vegetables on a bed of lettuce. It was good and more filling than I had expected, especially when combined with various side dishes (we all ordered one different side dish each and then shared them between us). I had ordered some vegetarian spring rolls too, as I wasn’t sure the lettuce would fill me up, but they were unnecessary, not that they went to waste. Dessert was good too, chocolate volcano.

However, the mask hygiene in the restaurant was not good. One waitress wore her mask properly; unfortunately one male waiter failed to cover his nose (is it purely ornamental?) and the other didn’t wear a mask at all. The chef came outside the kitchen at one point without a mask too. So that made me feel a little ill at ease. Kosher restaurants have a reputation for poor service; I hope we’re not going to have to add poor mask hygiene to that.

This also reminds me of a disgusting experience at a pizza restaurant in Tel Aviv years ago, where you could see into the kitchen from the restaurant and I saw the chef open a bag of pizza cheese by biting into it!

***

I’m still getting positive feedback for my article on having Asperger’s in the Orthodox community. It’s reassuring to have my writing praised, but some of the feedback that stays with me most strongly is from friends here on the blog who don’t know me in real life and said that I look normal or handsome in the photos on the article. I don’t think I have hugely awful body image (despite having low self-esteem about other parts of myself), but I’ve never thought of myself as particularly good-looking either, perhaps a legacy of terrible adolescent acne, and my unfortunate romantic history, or lack of it. I didn’t even go out on a date until I was twenty-seven. I assumed women simply weren’t attracted to me, but in retrospect I simply didn’t meet enough women and was too nervous and awkward when I did meet them.

***

On the subject of self-esteem, I’m re-reading Leaping Souls: Rabbi Menachem Mendel and the Spirit of Kotzk by Chaim Feinberg on the Kotzker Rebbe. I thought this passage (pp. 72-73), although long, was worth quoting in full (punctuation emended slightly for clarity):

One must never confuse lowness, coarse degradation, with the blessed light of humility. Ayin, spiritual self-effacement, does not mean spiritual emptiness. It is rather the rasha, the wicked man, who inwardly wallows in his own worthlessness:

Reb Mendel said: “Not only one who hates his fellow man is called a wicked person — one who hates himself is also called wicked.”

The good Jew, however, draws his esteem from God:

“It is proper for a man to believe that his deeds are important and beautiful in the eyes of God, for through this belief he will prepare more and more good deeds. But precisely the opposite is true if he believes he is far-off from God, that his deeds are unimportant to Him because they are not totally pure. Heaven forbid, but such a notion can lead to a total self-distancing from God, and this is exactly the advice of the evil inclination, the yetzer hara. About such a state of mind, King Solomon has said: ‘Do not be overly wicked.'”

Fitting In at Shul

I didn’t write yesterday because I didn’t want to go online after Shabbat (the Sabbath), because I know that once I do that, I’ll be on the computer for hours, and it was already late (Shabbat didn’t finish until nearly 10.00pm). I’ll be trying to do that each week over the summer, assuming my willpower holds.

Shabbat was good, although I overslept as usual. I was hoping to get up earlier. I slept in the afternoon too which I also did not want to do and which probably had consequences later.

As an experiment, I wore a black suede kippah (skullcap) instead of my usual white crochet one, black suede kippot being considered less ‘modern’ that white crochet ones (there is a kind of etiquette about these things). No one at shul (synagogue) said anything or seemed to notice, which I guess is good. My Mum noticed. I’m not sure which kippah I will wear in the future. To be honest, the white one is probably too big and not a good fit for me anyway (although the fashion with white crochet kippot is to wear very big ones), so I might stick with the black one from that point of view.

At shul (synagogue) for Minchah (Afternoon Prayer) I was given an aliyah (called to do something in the service) again, this time actually called to make the blessings over the Torah reading. I was nervous and self-conscious, as I always am these when given an aliyah, but I think I did OK, aside from dropping my siddur (prayer book).

The last few weeks I’ve been wondering if I’m more accepted at shul than I thought I was. People do say Good Shabbos” to me and seem pleased to see me. I find it hard to read these situations, but it seems more positive than I previously thought.

The Talmud shiur (religious class) afterwards was taken by a guest rabbi, as it was last week. I’m not sure why, as our rabbi was around. I’m kind of hoping this new rabbi will take the class permanently, as I seem to follow him better. I’m not sure why. I think he goes somewhat slower and recaps more. Also, he seems to keep the shiur more focused. In a shiur, people often ask questions that take us from the point. In particular, practical halakhah (Jewish law) is often unclear in the Talmudic discussion and, in practice, sometimes what we do is not what the Talmud says we should do. This sometimes prompts questions that take us far from the topic at hand, and this rabbi seems to answer those quickly and stick with the discussion in the Talmud where other rabbis get diverted. This helps me focus a lot.

As I mentioned, I didn’t switch my laptop on after Shabbat. I did look on my phone to see how many emails and blogs I had to read, but I didn’t start reading them all. I went to bed before 1.00am, which for a late spring/summer Shabbat was good going. I woke up at 5.00am and couldn’t get back to sleep. I davened the whole of Shacharit (prayed the whole of the Morning Service), which I hadn’t done for ages, and went through my emails and blog posts. Then I got tired and lay down for a bit, and fell asleep for three hours. So in the end I had a normal amount of sleep, just interrupted. I lost my early start, but I did daven Shacharit at the right time for once.

I didn’t do a lot else today. I went for a run, despite having a stomach ache. It was OK, but at one point I felt flushed and had to stop for a few seconds until it passed. It felt like the headrush of standing up too fast, so I wonder if it’s a blood pressure thing (my blood pressure tends to be a bit low). The thing is, this has happened a couple of times recently, never for more than a few seconds, but usually when I’m not exerting myself particularly strongly e.g. going for a walk. I’m not too worried about it, but might mention it to a doctor at some point.

Other than that, the main thing today was promoting my article on Asperger’s/high functioning autism in the Orthodox Jewish community which is now up (I’m not linking to it from here as it has my real name on it). So far the feedback I’ve had from friends and family has been positive, although I haven’t dared to look at the comments on the article yet.

Actually, there was one other thing, but I don’t want to talk about it just yet… hopefully in a few days (trying not to be a tease, but also not to neglect something pretty important).

Exciting News

I woke up to really good news this morning: my article about being on the autism spectrum in the frum community is going to be published! Although I’m not sure whether to link from here when it goes up. It is related to what I write about here, but it will also be published under my real name, with my photo. So, I might publish a link in a password-protected post for those who might be interested and who I feel comfortable letting see that. (I do realise that I’ve written where I was submitting it in a previous post, so I might make that private.)

They edited the article a bit. I think they felt it was too long. I’m OK with the edits. I haven’t done a comparison with my draft, but the main thing that seems different is a paragraph they cut on my special interests, which I didn’t explain very well anyway and really put in partially as a dare to myself to mention Doctor Who to frum people to see what happened (answer: they cut it, but the sky didn’t fall in, and they still took the article). I think they’ve written a couple of summary quotes to use as sub-headings, which is also fine.

They asked for some photos of me and some of me with my family to illustrate the article. This was quite hard. I don’t generally think I photography well and there were some photographs that were good, but which I didn’t think would be deemed appropriate (either me wearing t-shirts with pictures from Doctor Who or the like, or with members of my family probably not meeting this site’s dress code). I found a few suitable ones in the end. I guess the lesson is, be careful what you wear, because you never know when your photo might end up on a religious website.

I didn’t have work today as J was working from home, and I’m not going in at the moment without him. I think it’s difficult for him to prepare my work in advance. As work comes in and he deals with it, it generates admin tasks for me like filing papers and processing cheques. It’s hard to prepare it in advance. I worked a little bit on my plan for a future novel and went for a run, which wasn’t particularly good as I had a bit of a stomach ache. I also had a Skype call with my rabbi mentor that went well.

I went to a virtual shiur (religious class) this evening. It was a fairly spontaneous thing, unusual for me; I just decided to go this morning. It turned out not to be the greatest shiur ever, although I don’t really want to go into why at the moment. On a more practical level, it was hard, as a delayed exercise headache started shortly before the shiur started. I took paracetamol in time to stop it turning into a severe migraine, but I was a bit uncomfortable for most of the shiur.

I feel quite tired now, which is quite common for me after a headache, so I’m winding down and hope to go to bed soon.

Gunslinger Librarian

I have noted before that, like a lot of people on the autism spectrum, I’m not always good at understanding or even noticing my own moods, known technically as alexithymia. My mood all day yesterday was different. After the big thing that I’m not going to speak about directly yet happened, I felt what I thought was anxiety all day. It was only when I was getting ready for bed that I realised that it wasn’t anxiety. I’m not 100% sure what it was. I think excitement is the most likely, but maybe happiness as well or instead. It’s good either way. I don’t usually experience either of those things.

I went to bed early last night as I knew I had to be up early today for volunteering, but I struggled to sleep. I’m not sure if that’s related to the excitement; I don’t think so, but who knows? Despite that, I woke up early today (a little earlier than I needed). I was still a few minutes late leaving, and there was bad traffic so I was twenty minutes late for volunteering. No one seemed worried. I guess if you’re a volunteer, they’re just grateful for the help.

This volunteering is at the Jewish food bank where I was volunteering last year, until they tightened their COVID precautions in the third lockdown and only allowed people to volunteer in their “bubbles.” They’ve lifted that regulation now, so I went back today. We now have high vis jackets to wear, which I guess makes sense as we’re working in the car park and garage of the organisation, and there are some cars going in and out.

I was mostly putting frozen meals into crates, and sticking labels onto boxes of food. It was repetitive work, but I can do that kind of repetitive task mechanically while thinking about other things without feeling bored. I was working primarily with only one other person and we were in the garage and round the corner from the other volunteers, so I hardly saw the other staff and volunteers. I’m OK with that too. A few people seemed pleased to see me again, which was nice. I always think it’s strange when people are pleased to see me, or remember me at all. It was rather cold, though — underground, unheated, with a concrete floor that seems to suck the heat out of my feet. I was glad I had wore my anorak.

I was there for over two hours, excluding travel time. Also excluding worry about not being able to socially distance on the bus for fifteen minutes or so when a bunch of schoolchildren got on for a number of stops. This happens every time, so I guess I just have to live with it. I didn’t see if they were wearing masks today, but often some don’t. It’s sad that COVID has made sitting next to someone on the bus feel as dangerous as sharing a syringe.

I was pretty tired after I got home and had lunch. I did some more work on my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week. I’m happier with it now. I didn’t do much else. I wrote an email about some potential jobs (see below) and planned what I want to say when I speak to my rabbi mentor tomorrow morning. I procrastinated over this, because I’m nervous of how it will go and what might follow from it. I don’t want to go into more details for now, sorry.

***

I was contacted by a job agency with two potential jobs for me. Both were for more hours a week than I think myself capable of at the moment and both require specialist knowledge or experience that I don’t have (of art and health librarianship). I asked the recruiter to put my name forward for both, on the grounds I don’t have to fill in an application and that it’s good to show willing to the agency. I doubt I’ll be called for interview for either. The job specs are daunting, though. One admittedly was for a more senior position than I’ve had before, although perhaps where my career would/”should” have been, had my issues not intervened.

I’ve really lost confidence in my ability to do the type of job I was trained for. If I was in a Western, I would be the gunslinger who has lost his nerve and can not sling his guns any more. Only I’m a librarian gunslinger (whatever that is).

There’s a Dilbert cartoon where Wally (the lazy one) is saying to the Pointy Haired Boss, “I’m pleased to report that I had no problems this week. I only had issues, opportunities, challenges and valuable learning experiences.” Then when the Pointy Haired Boss asks if he actually did any work, he replies that, “It didn’t seem necessary.” I feel like this has been my life for years, but since COVID, it’s been everyone’s life.

***

I don’t often post links, but given that I tend to feel insecure about rabbis being “better” than me, I was intrigued to read an Orthodox rabbi write about his own experiences of social media-driven insecurity.