Trying to Think My Own Thoughts

I woke up feeling OK: tired, but OK.  But then I looked at some news online and drifted down into depression and despair.  I felt disgruntled with political stuff.  I wrote some stuff here, but deleted it to avoid arguments.  I will say that it certainly is hard, when I’m being told by therapists and psychiatrists not to personalise and not to feel guilty about everything, when the media, politicians and activists tell me that I’m “part of the problem,” and that I’m full of unconscious privilege that makes me an inherently bad person no matter what I do.

I’ve been having difficult religious thoughts too, thinking I will never fit in to frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) society.  I feel like I’m torn by opposed ideas.  This is true in politics and culture, but particularly in religion.

I was thinking today about Rav Kook, one of the most important Orthodox Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century.  He was also a man of opposites: mystical, yet accepting much of modern science and academic scholarship; a Zionist, but also a universalist; a halakhicist and posek (Jewish legal expert/decisor) who was also an accomplished poet and advocate of Jewish cultural revival; a religious Jew who was friends with non-religious Jews; a Litvak who thought like a Hasid…  Somehow Rav Kook took outlooks that feel like opposites in me and integrated them into a flawless whole.  Sadly, his writings are very difficult, and the more controversial aspects were suppressed by his son and his chief student after his death to make him look more conventional.  I do have a couple of recent books that either present his thought with explanations or paraphrase more complex teachings.  But I feel like I need something more personal and more able to reach my core.  I also feel that I don’t need a book, but a teacher I can have prolonged conversations with, maybe even be set tasks.  I can speak to my rabbi mentor sometimes, but generally not for long and I don’t like to do it too often.  I would be asking a lot of anyone to guide me the way I feel I need.

In a previous crisis of faith, about ten or fifteen years ago, I read books and articles by apologists, who tried to prove the existence of God, the veracity of the Torah and the integrity of the biblical record in various ways.  I regard these attempts as mostly flawed if not nonsense now.  These days I prefer what I might call “soft” apologetics, that stress Judaism as a system of meaning and a way of being part of a living three thousand year culture and history (as opposed to what I call “hard” apologetics that try to prove God etc.).  The problem for me currently is that the “meaning and living” approach is tied up with ideas of community and family that I feel distanced from because of my situation (being single, not having a community I completely fit with) and my issues (depression, social anxiety, autism), as well as assuming a degree of joy and meaning in religious performance that I rarely experience because of depressive anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure).  It makes it very hard to keep going.

Online I came across an old debate from over ten years ago.  One of the participants was someone then struggling with Orthodox Judaism who I used to encounter sometimes in various online fora.  He could be very critical of Orthodox Jews, but once said that he felt that I was one of the few he knew who made him think that we aren’t all [rude word].  So now I feel that I’ve somehow let him down, let myself down and let down the Judaism I was modelling by slipping into despair and scepticism.  Possibly this is me making everything about guilt and despair again.

***

It’s hard sometimes to be sure that I’m thinking my own thoughts, and not having someone else think them for me.  I don’t mean in terms of psychosis, but in terms of originality, and resisting propaganda and indoctrination and even the subtle effects of peer pressure and language (not to mention the incongruous and hypocritical virtue signalling of woke multinational corporations… I don’t think Amazon are in a position to lecture anyone about ethics).  This applies regarding culture, religion and politics.  Especially politics at the moment.

***

I tried to do some practice library cataloguing to prepare for my job application test, as I hadn’t catalogued anything for nearly two years.  I made some stupid mistakes initially, but I think I was OK after that, but I don’t have much confidence.  I read the rubric for the test, and I think they are asking for a lot of related stuff I only vaguely remember from my MA course or can’t do easily without resources I don’t have in lockdown, like Library of Congress subject words, which I haven’t used since my MA.  I would have to use the online version when I’m used to the hardcopy version.  I was also taught how to catalogue with the new standard, RDA, but everywhere I have worked used the old standard, AACR2, so I can only vaguely remember RDA.  They did say it was OK to use AACR2 if necessary, but I don’t know whether to try and risk failure or not.  As I’ve said before, I’ve rather lost my confidence in my ability to catalogue and I don’t know how to get it back.  I’m not sure there’s much point in practising any more.  I need to jump in and do it.

I don’t know how long I spent on cataloguing.  Probably not long if I took out the procrastination time involved.  I also spent a bit of time on my novel (just under an hour writing over 600 words) and went for a half-hour walk again.  I feel frustrated that the novel is going slowly, but it is going steadily.  It’s hard to judge how long the first draft will take at this stage.  I discovered today that I’ve been working on it for eleven months so far.  Of course, there was a lengthy interruption when I concentrated on my non-fiction Doctor Who book.  It does seem a long time though.  I’m about half way through, maybe a bit more.

***

I had shiur (religious class) on Zoom again.  It was difficult.  I still struggle with the noise and changing pictures on group Zoom calls, and my usual social anxiety around speaking up is even worse when I need to unmute myself first.  I had an autistic “I think they’re joking, but I’m not sure” moment too.  The worst bit today was when the teacher thought I had answered a question, but it was someone else, but I couldn’t tell who.  I’m not sure that I gave the credit to the right person.  I started stimming (autistic self-soothing touch or movement), stroking my face and pressing my fingers in my desk cupboard door.  I felt self-conscious about this, but also unable to stop.  As autistic people will tell you, it is hard to consciously stop stimming especially if stressed.  I didn’t learn much I didn’t already know from the class either.

On the plus side, the handouts this week included useful lists of Hebrew abbreviations and key words.  These are primarily intended for Rashi’s Torah commentary (the focus of the shiur), but I suspect will be useful for rabbinic literature in general, as key phrases are often abbreviated in all the Medieval commentaries, as well as in the Talmud.  It can be very irritating if you don’t know what the abbreviation stands for.

***

Good things today: Ashes to Ashes series two so far is a lot better than series one, on a par with its predecessor Life on Mars; I don’t think I’ve put on weight during lockdown; and some how-to-write books I was waiting for arrived today, although I’m still waiting for one more.  It is daunting to think of reading the writing books and then applying them to my own writing.

Loneliness and Fitting In

I woke up feeling depressed and lonely again.  E. is concerned about my tendency to turn everything into guilt, that I assume that everything bad in my life is my fault and if I was a good person I could change it.  She thinks that this is not really the case.  She feels in particular that I shouldn’t feel guilty about not being emotionally connected to Judaism.  I guess it’s hard not to when Judaism presents a lot of things (perhaps most things) in moral terms and assumes that good people can change them, at least with the right tools.  It’s assumed that a person who wants a better relationship to God or Judaism can ‘fix’ that; it doesn’t take into account that my brain chemistry might prevent that, or say what I should do instead or how I should cope.

That said, I wonder if this is really guilt or if I’m misunderstanding my emotions again.  I don’t think what I see as guilt is really sadness, but maybe it’s loneliness or disconnection.  I was reading about domestic abuse again (see below) and came across the idea that abusive men express all their emotions as anger; I wonder if I express all my emotions as depression or guilt.  I don’t know if that idea even makes sense.  At the very least, alexithymia (difficulty understanding my own emotions) makes it hard to understand what I feel.

I’m worried about the future too.  I want lockdown to be over, but at the same time, that would shift my worries about career and relationship up a gear as I have to confront things again.  I’m already dreading the cataloguing test I have to do soon for a job application.

***

I’m also struggling with political thoughts that I don’t really want to write about here, worries about the situation across the Atlantic, worries about my participation in racist societies, but also about the much greater coverage of and sensitivity around racism by most people in the West compared with antisemitism.  Jews aren’t more likely than most people to be killed by the police, but they are more likely than many to experience violence.  In the USA, Jews are the victim of well over half religious hate crimes, far more than any other religious group.  I don’t feel this is a particularly appropriate time to talk about antisemitism.  We need to concentrate on racism right now.  The problem is that much of the world has shown that it never thinks the time is right to talk about antisemitism.

Mind you, I can get upset by little things, for instance, a letter in an old Jewish Chronicle criticising Orthodox rabbis unfairly.

I’m not sure how these thoughts would be classified.  They’re kind of on the boundary between depression and anxiety, with some anger, but not what people generally mean when they refer to those feelings in a psychotherapeutic context.

***

I spent an hour or more trying to work on my novel.  I wrote about 450 words, which was not bad, but not great either.  I procrastinated a lot, got upset about irrelevant things (see the paragraph above) then read abuse survivors’ accounts to try to get me back into the mindset of writing about abuse, but that just made me feel more miserable and made it harder to concentrate.

I tried to look at my notes from my librarianship MA on cataloguing in preparation for doing a cataloguing test some time this week or next for a job application.  It was hard to concentrate because I felt so depressed, and because I was aware that I probably know this stuff as well as I ever will.  I feel I probably know the stuff, I just have no confidence in my ability to show it.  I’ve really lost confidence in my ability to do librarian stuff in recent years.  It’s hard to remember that I once thought that I would be a good librarian, even a professional cataloguer.

***

I didn’t do much Torah study (about fifteen minutes).  I  wrote this rather long email to my rabbi mentor instead (slightly edited here):

I’m really struggling religiously lately.  It’s hard to daven and to learn Torah in particular. It also feels like I have no meaningful connection to HaShem [God] and to Torah much of the time. It’s hard to work out why. Or, there are many possible reasons:

– my depression/general mental health (which has got worse the last couple of weeks) – one rabbi once told me that I wouldn’t be able to connect emotionally to God and Torah until I recover, but it increasingly looks like there is no recovery for me, just being able to manage my condition better;

– resentment of simplistic theologies in the frum world that see working at Judaism and especially having bitachon [trust in God] as immediately positive results.  I think these are wrong, but they make part of my brain think, “God must be angry with me, or He would have healed me/got me a job/let me get married by now;

– feelings of despair regarding my life, relationship, career, etc. and feeling that I won’t be able to build anything because HaShem keep testing me by making me suffer and taking away what I’ve achieved;

– generally feeling like a social misfit in the frum world: the United Synagogue doesn’t take Torah and davening [prayer] seriously enough for me, in the Federation I feel like have to hide various beliefs and interests because they’re unacceptable, and the people at the London School of Jewish Studies are mostly a generation older than me. I felt in particular that my local shul has not always supported me well in terms of helping me be part of the community or regarding my mental health (as well as setting me up on shidduch dates [arranged blind dates]), although things had been a bit better at the start of the year and I felt that after four years, I was fitting in a little bit better… and then coronavirus came and disrupted even that.

Lately I wonder if I won’t fit in anywhere, ever. It seems everywhere I go, I feel that I don’t fit in, and I’m beginning to wonder if that’s just in my head, or from my autism. I really feel that I struggle to fit in and to follow the unspoken social codes, which is a classic autistic symptom. On the other hand, I’ve never had the kind of support that the frum world is said to provide to most people in need.

And underneath it all is the feeling of emptiness, loneliness, isolation.  Of feeling that HaShem is so far from me and indifferent to me, or that He will invalidate all my mitzvot on some technicality.  I feel I can’t connect with Him.  Sometimes I feel that I don’t know what it would be like to feel joy at all.  I saw something the other day about the need to have spiritual pleasure, but I’m not even able to have physical pleasure.

Sometimes I worry I’m frum more out of habit than anything else these days, which does not make me feel good. To be honest, the non-Orthodox/non-religious world is just as off-putting to me as the frum world, but I know E. finds aspects of the frum world difficult, especially the lack of appreciation of serious culture, and I find it hard to “sell” her the frum life when I feel so negative about it.

I do still enjoy Shabbat, even though I feel that is partly a relaxation thing as much as a spiritual one.  Occasionally I do see Torah that resonates, but it’s hard to build on it; likewise if I daven well one day.  I do enjoy writing my weekly divrei Torah [Torah thoughts], although I do experience that as a stress sometimes, and a drain on time for Torah study.

This is what I’ve been feeling.  Would it be possible to discuss it, by Skype or email, please?  I don’t know if there is an answer, but I feel I need to try something new.  I mean a new strategy to engage with my religious life.  It’s just so hard to keep going sometimes.

I’m not sure what I expect to get from it.  He can’t wave a magic wand and solve my troubles and we have spoken about this in the past.  I suspect if I was more confident in myself and worried less about what other people think of me, I would fit in to frum society better, and if I fitted in better socially, a lot of my lack of religious connection would go away.  But I’m not sure how to do that.

My Spiritual Overdraft

Last night, after I posted, I started feeling very depressed.  I hoped sleeping would help, but the depression has stayed with me since waking up today.  Last night I felt like big and small things are mixed together, as are my problems and those of the world, and it’s hard to distinguish them.  Very trivial things, like the fact that I’m accidentally reading the books in a Batman story arc in the wrong order, are mixed up with bigger things, like guilt for things I’ve done and with things going on in the world, like the riots in America.  Everything got mixed together.  Today it’s mostly settled down as a general sense of depression and perhaps loneliness.

Lately I’ve been trying to just sit with my negative thoughts rather than either fight them or wallow in them, but it’s hard.  It’s hard to even remember to do it, as it’s not how I am accustomed to treating these thoughts, and it’s certainly hard to do.

It’s one of those days when I’m not happy being myself, where I just feel guilty about everything I’ve ever done, I feel that everything was stupid or wrong and wonder why I can’t just act like a normal person.  Maybe a normal person would do the same things, but just not feel guilty.  I’m “shoulding” myself a lot, beating myself up for things I do, or don’t do.

It doesn’t help that stuff in the news makes me think that, as much structural problems in the economy or society, violence can be rooted in small acts of thoughtlessness that are treated as normal and not serious, like gossiping and losing one’s temper with close family (it’s not particularly politically correct to think like this.  Much easier to criticise Those People or That System instead).  I do these things, but I think they normalise selfishness, reduce empathy and create a bad atmosphere in society, although I’m hazy on how that leads to major things like murder and abuse.  They do seem serious to me.  Maybe I overthink things.

***

I did about half an hour of Torah study today.  I couldn’t really do more because of therapy and being exhausted from therapy afterwards.  Some of my reading was stuff online that made me feel that I’m a bad Jew.  This was on a website written by a rabbi who has become very popular writing about spirituality and personal growth, the areas where I feel lacking, so I hoped it might help.  However, it left me feeling that I don’t connect strongly and emotionally with God.  Well, I already knew that.  I don’t know how to become more spiritually developed and connect with God when I feel so depressed.  A rabbi I spoke to about this said I won’t be able to connect spiritually and feel spiritual joy until I’m over the depression, but in recent years the idea of not being depressed seems unlikely; I’m just trying to manage my mental illnesses.   I also don’t know how to connect with God and Judaism when so much of the frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) community seems opposed to people like me, at least the parts of it available for me to connect to.  Sometimes I wonder what is keeping me frum.  It can be hard to tell sometimes.

I possibly didn’t give the rabbi’s site a good enough chance, I felt uncomfortable with some sweeping statements he made and that prejudiced me against the gist of his writing.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz says somewhere something I would never dare to say, that the experience of many ba’alei teshuva (Jews raised non-religious who became religious later on) is like someone who married a wonderful person i.e. God, but who came along with a terrible family i.e. other Jews (Rav Steinsaltz is himself a ba’al teshuva).  I don’t think all frum Jews are bad people, far from it, but lately I feel stifled by the frum community and its attitudes and I don’t know what to do about it.  I wish I could move to a more Modern Orthodox community, but even then I know that some attitudes would probably remain.  Coming at a time when I also feel disconnected from HaShem (God) makes it difficult to stay frum sometimes and I think on some level I’m frum from habit at the moment, at least in part.  That’s not necessarily a huge problem; I think you can have a spiritual bank account and you can make some big withdrawals, maybe even have a managed overdraft for a while, if you already made some big deposits.  I think I did make those deposits in the past that can cover my current spending, I just can’t work out how to find the spiritual currency to get back into credit.

***

The good news today is that I wrote nearly 700 words of my novel in an hour, which was very good considering I was feeling very depressed.  I couldn’t write more because I had therapy and I always feel to tired to write after that.

In therapy we spoke about trying to accept the process of my critical thoughts rather than proving, disproving or fighting them (related to what I said above about trying to do this lately).  It’s hard.  We also spoke about the importance of acknowledging thoughts rather than repressing them.

The session ended awkwardly, though, as the screen froze and I wasn’t sure if the therapist was ending the session or not.  I texted to ask and waited a minute, but there was no reply, so I thought we were done and started something else, but then the therapist called back to say goodbye.  That sounds like a trivial interaction, but it disrupted the ‘back to reality’ feeling of the end of the therapy session.

“Rescue me before I fall into despair”

“More loneliness than any man could bear/Rescue me before I fall into despair.” – Message in a Bottle by The Police

A new issue of The Tides of Time, the fanzine of the Oxford University Doctor Who Society is out online.  It looks interesting, but I’m not sure how much I’ll read, as it has already provoked mixed feelings.  Partly this is from feeling that my time in the society has long gone.  The new issue, although containing many articles from people who have left or were never even there has little from people who were there when I was there.  Even the nickname of the society has changed from the Doc Soc (my generation) to Who Soc.  I’m very much out of the fandom loop, which is why (I assume) I missed the call for articles on Twitter.  Fandom today, as far as I can tell, largely takes place on Twitter and big, multi-fandom super-conventions like Comic-Con, neither of which are good environments for me, for different reasons.  Plus, modern fandom is so political, and these days I keep my politics to myself to keep myself safe, but it’s often different from (stereotypical) fan politics.  Add in that I didn’t much like the last series of Doctor Who, unlike the reviewers in the fanzine, and it’s hard to find common ground, and when I fail to find common ground with people, I read that, perhaps wrongly, as implicit criticism of my positions, and run off before people can attack me.  I feel like if I could have stayed in the loop, I could have promoted my book more (not in the fanzine, but online or in person), or would have had more friends to promote it to, but it’s rather pointless to go down that route now.  But there is a feeling of loneliness from having lost (or never had) these kinds of friendship networks.

Speaking of which, after I posted on Thursday, before Yom Tov, I realised what the nagging sense of melancholy was that I was experiencing: loneliness.  I feel that today, the feeling that I can’t connect with people.  That the attempt to live two lives, one religious (Orthodox Judaism) and one secular (Doctor Who fandom, and secular life in general) has failed, and that neither appreciates or respects the other.  E. has remarked that Orthodox society is often uncultured, which I can’t deny is true, to some extent at least.  It can be rather bourgeois.  I try to put up with it, but I worry that she won’t be able to.  I worry that I will just drive myself crazy trying to find people I can connect with, then running away from them when I find them because I think they must hate me really.  Hiding parts of my personality all the time.  This is basically what I have done for the last twenty years or so, since I went to university.  Kafka writes somewhere about someone chained with one chain to Heaven and with another to earth, so that he can’t move in either direction.  I feel a bit like that.

All that said, I have opted to renew the subscription on my Doctor Who blog for another year.  Just in case.  Now I need to find something to write on it, and the time to write it.

I am feeling lonely today though, ill at ease with myself and the world(s) around me, the one world I see on the news and in the papers and the other world I see on Jewish blogs.  I also feel depressed, which I suppose ties in with the loneliness and also with the world I see around me.  It’s scary to think that I could potentially be living in the USA in a few years time, looking at the stuff on the news.

***
I’m trying to practice “radical acceptance” of my parents’ quirks and foibles, accepting things that I can’t change.  It’s difficult.  It’s even harder to apply it to my neighbours’ behaviour.  The latter is very hard, because, as well as lockdown-breaching minyanim (prayer meetings), they had a noisy garden party with I think more than six guests (possibly six adult guests, but a load of children too), and not at all socially distanced.  From the conversation that drifted up, it sounded like one of the guests was trying to convince our neighbour to keep his minyan going after lockdown.  If they did that, I think I would alert the council to an unauthorised change of house use.  This has happened before with shtiebels (tiny synagogues in houses or above shops) that have been started without the necessary permissions.

***

I applied for a job a while back that was rather rashly advertised in lockdown.  They have now cancelled or possibly just postponed the interview stage, but have sent me a cataloguing exercise to complete.  I’ve glanced at it and gone into panic mode.  I have rather lost confidence in my cataloguing abilities, although they used to be good.  I feel like the gunslinger who has lost his nerve and with it his ability to sling guns quicker than other gunslingers, or at all.  I suppose failing at this at least avoids the face-to-face nature of the interview fail.

***

Other than that, it was a fairly ordinary locked-down day.  I spent about two hours working on my novel, writing just over 1,000 words and struggling against the noise from next door.  I went for a half hour walk and had my Skype Torah study session with E.

Mum cut my hair.  Most of it, anyway; I trimmed the sideburns.  I don’t think it had been cut since February (February 6, according to my private journal posts).  Mum did a good job, but I had to trim my sideburns, which I’d left long when I shaved off my omer beard, as they looked silly with shorter hair.  This is a shame, as I like having longish sideburns.

***

Towards evening, depression set in, and guilt.  I felt bad that I ate dinner separately to my parents so that I could watch TV.  I felt bad over something I had done repeatedly in the past, something forbidden by Judaism and sometimes seen negatively more widely.  Although maybe this guilt is a good thing, as I’ve been going back and forth in my mind about including this in my novel.  It probably is an issue worth bringing up (in the secular world, even more so the religious one), but I’m scared of how people will respond, whether they will judge me, boycott my book or ignore the other messages in it, about autism, mental health and abuse.

The Long Dark Night of the Soul

I was hit by a thought today that surprised me.  Since blogging on WordPress, I have come across a lot of Christian mental health blogs.  Sometimes there’s a kind of conversion narrative of a fall from the world into a pit of suffering and despair (this is particularly the case when substance abuse features in the narrative), followed by the turn to religion and the feeling of grace and salvation, which leads to renewed success (if that’s the right word) in the battle with mental illness or addiction.

The surprising thing is that this kind of writing does not really exist in post-Biblical Judaism at all.  I mean very deeply personal introspection of the long, dark night of the soul and the religious journey from suffering to redemption.  Judaism is a non-missionary religion and the vast majority of Jews were born Jewish even if they did not have a religious upbringing, so it’s perhaps not surprising that there are so few literal conversion narrative, but there could be narratives of suffering and despair leading to faith and joy, but by and large there are not.

There are Tehillim and Iyov (Psalms and Job) in Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible).  In post-biblical literature there are some of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav’s teachings that deal (directly or indirectly with his suffering).  Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik deals a little with this in The Lonely Man of Faith and parts of Halakhic Man .  There are bits in the Sacred Fire of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, the Piaseczno Rebbe where he approaches this, but his focus is not so much the personal journey as the communal experience of Nazi persecution.

I am not familiar enough with the Holocaust literature to see how that fits in.  I think you might find something there, but not quite the same as the Christian type, not least because of the presence of clear villain figures in the Nazis, not to mention the fact that many Jews lost their faith in the Holocaust rather than finding it.  I’m not sure that I would class the writings of Elie Wiesel, for example, in this category.  I don’t think it is really that personal, inner type of despair, rather the despair from being dehumanised by an outside force.

I don’t know the Medieval poetry of the paytanim (liturgical poets) to know whether they dealt with these feelings.  Possibly they did (they did right rather erotic love poetry, something airbrushed out of the biographies of some major figures).

I have a few Judaism and depression books which include personal narratives.  The Road to Resilience by Sherri Mendell is a fairly practical book about overcoming loss.  I remember very little of Healing from Despair by Elie Kaplan Spitz, although it probably is the closest to what I’m looking for, in that it deals with the author’s despair in detail (but by a Reform rabbi, not an Orthodox one, tellingly).  It might be worth me re-reading that soon.  Some of the personal stories in the anthology book Calling Out to You edited by Tehilla Edelman fit in this category at least partially, but as I recall the focus is more on the practical story of mental illness and recovery than the spiritual crisis.  Some are definitely what I have in mind e.g. “I had to unravel all of my preconceived notions about Hashem.  I used to think that G-d only loved me if I behaved.  The idea that Hashem loves me like a father didn’t work for me, because with a father like mine [abusive] it didn’t mean much.  I also didn’t understand how Hashem could let abuse happen to children, and I didn’t know if I could ever trust Him…  After much soul-searching, I came to believe that Hashem does care about me and that it doesn’t matter if I can’t call Him Father.” (From My Journey to Hashem through Depression and Addiction: Miriam’s Story in Calling Out to You.)

That’s about all I can think of, in a three thousand year tradition.

It’s worth comparing with the narratives I’ve seen written by people who became Orthodox Jews in adulthood, either non-Jews who converted to Judaism or ba’alei teshuva, non-religious Jews who became Orthodox.  These seem to be largely calm and peaceful narratives that start by laying out the writer’s initial antipathy to and/or ignorance of Orthodox Judaism, the story of how they encountered it close up for the first time, their experience of the beauty of Torah and mitzvot (commandments) and how they overcame a few sticking points (e.g. Torah/science conflict or gender and sexuality issues) to become devout Orthodox Jews.  There is occasionally tension with friends or family members who do not like the religious change, but there is no sense of suffering or trauma here, the dark night of the soul to which religion is the solution.  The truth is that if I was writing my own ba’al teshuva narrative, it would also be largely separate from my mental health journey, which did not really start in earnest until I was some way along my religious journey.

It’s just interesting that we don’t really have the vocabulary to express this kind of narrative.  I am experiencing that first-hand, in the difficulty I have expressing my inner religious life here and, fictionalised, in my novel.  I do not have a model to use.  It’s doubtful how much anyone could model themselves on Tehillim (Psalms) nowadays without falling into self-parody, let alone the difficult, complex poetry of Iyov (Job).  But there are few more recent models to look to.

I wonder if this is another reason why “leaving Orthodoxy” narratives, fictional and non-fictional, are so much more common than “joining Orthodoxy” narratives, as I have discussed here before.  It’s not really a genre that we promote (not that Orthodox Judaism encourages the writing of fiction or memoirs, or creative writing generally).

Doubtless part of the reason is that Christianity is a religion based on the personal salvation of the individual through the personal sacrifice of Jesus and mediated through the introspective writings of Paul in the New Testament.  Whereas Judaism is a communal/national religion based, at the very least, on creating communities based on love and mutual aid, building together to a nation state built, ideally, on love and compassion and eventually an example for a new world order built on love and compassion through monotheism.  There isn’t much room in that narrative for the individual’s long dark night of the soul.  It’s just not relevant.  It took some fairly unique circumstances to produce figures like Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav or Rav Soloveitchik who can let us peek a little at what a kind of Jewish dark night of the soul literature might look like.

***

As for Yom Tov (the festival), it was OK, but I struggled to connect with the religious ideals of the festival (hence, in part, this post).  I prayed a lot, studied Torah a lot, ate a lot, slept a lot.  I had a lot of aches and pains from my workout on Wednesday.  I think I’ve pulled a lot of muscles in my arms, legs and torso.  I did still go for a couple of walks despite the pain.  I also woke up in the middle night with a migraine yesterday.  My mood was mostly OK, but dipped a bit this afternoon.  That’s about all there is to report, though, aside from continued irritation at the illegal minyan (prayer quorum) next door.  I think I’m getting a better idea of why that annoys me so much (aside from all the obvious reasons), but it’s too late to deal with that now and this is a long enough post already.

Whatever “Normal” Is

It’s been suggested to me a couple of times that I’m a Highly Sensitive Person.  I’ve been resistant to this, partly because it seems unscientific (as far as I’m aware, it’s not in DSM5 or any other diagnostic manual), partly because I generally score less highly for autistic sensory sensitivity than for other autistic traits, and partly perhaps because I felt the term is open to abuse (it doesn’t help that the people who introduced me to the term eventually got angry with me in a way that I felt was a massive over-reaction on their part).

However, the term keeps coming up, so I looked today at some sites about Highly Sensitive People.  I do seem to have a lot of symptoms, even though those symptoms seem to vary from site to site, and often seem like possible symptoms of other underlying issues.  It does still seem like an untested idea.  Plus, I’m wary of adding another diagnosis to my list.  But maybe it’s true.

I just want to be “normal,” whatever that is.  Orthodox Judaism I suppose has a clearer definition of “normal” to the wider world, although I’m not sure that that was really an attraction to me.  The reverse, if anything; I was afraid of losing my individuality.  However, it turned out that I couldn’t cope with it anyway, at least not in the moderate Haredi world.  Either my depression, autism and social anxiety got in the way or I would have to give up too much stuff that was important to me, in terms of non-frum or non-Jewish friends, books and DVDs.  I still hope that one day I’ll find a Modern Orthodox shul that fits.

Talking of Jewish things, the festival of Shavuot (Pentecost, but nothing to do with the Christian Pentecost) starts tonight.  This has become a sort of favourite festival by default to me, as there are no special mitzvot (at least while the Temple remains un-re-built), so nothing triggers religious OCD, social anxiety or depression unlike almost all other Jewish festivals.

The custom is to stay up all night in shul (synagogue) studying Torah.  This can be fun, if interesting topics are chosen.  My shul seems to have a habit of alternating interesting and boring topics in different years (one year it was about the laws of separating mixtures on Shabbat (the Sabbath), which was about as interesting at 2.00 am as it sounds), and social anxiety can creep in at shul both in the study sessions, if I’m supposed to ask or answer questions, and especially in the refreshment breaks, where I don’t know who to talk to and generally stand around avoiding people.

Anyway, it’s irrelevant this year.  It’s just a custom, not a mitzvah (commandment) and a kabbalistic one at that (I’m not so into kabbalah) so I won’t be doing it at home alone, although plenty of people will.  I might stay up a bit after dinner studying, but not all night.  I feel a bit guilty about that, but I feel I don’t have the stamina to study all night by myself, without others to study with or to share interesting topics.  My shul did send an online booklet to be printed off before Yom Tov, but it was geared to children studying with parents and was also too Haredi for me (e.g. the potted biography of Medieval scholar Rabbeinu Asher said he was very opposed to secular study, especially philosophy, but the biography of Rambam (died a few decades before Rabbeinu Asher was born) didn’t say that he was very much in favour of secular study, including philosophy, which in his day included a lot of what we would call science).

My shul is doing a pre-Shavuot thing on Zoom before Yom Tov (the festival) starts, but I doubt I’ll go as it looks like it’s mainly for children and I don’t like group Zoom events.

***

Today I woke exhausted and depressed again, and also achy.  I think I didn’t do a good enough warm up for my workout yesterday, or maybe it’s a long time since I used those muscles.  I feel really fuzzy-headed too, as if I still haven’t recovered from Monday, even though it’s now Thursday.  I went for a half-hour walk and worked for about an hour on my novel, writing over 600 words.  I’d like to write more, but am not sure I have the time or the head for it.

I’m going to post now instead of right before Yom Tov, just in case I can get the dopamine hit of a comment or two before Shavuot starts.  I haven’t got much planned for later anyway, just my usual pre-Yom Tov chores (Shavuot requires little extra preparation) and plugging away at my novel for as long as I feel able or have time for, whichever is the shorter.

Hedgehog Concepts and Seeming Intimidating

I slept a lot last night.  I went to bed early (well, for me) and got up late.  I’m not sure if it helped.  I felt a bit depressed today, and very tired, which is normal for me, and fuzzy-headed, which may be due to the heat or depression.  I feel more frustrated than upset that I’m still paying for the good day I had on Monday.  I guess this is what depression and high-functioning autism look like, but I still find it frustrating.

I spent some time writing my novel.  I’m not sure how long.  I procrastinated a bit and struggled feeling fuzzy-headed and still quite frazzled, but I wrote over 700 words.  I also managed half an hour of Torah study.  I would have liked to have done more writing and Torah study, but, frankly, I was surprised I managed to do what I did, given how fuzzy-headed I felt.

It was too hot to run outside, so I stayed in and tried to do an aerobic exercise.  I hadn’t tried to do any for a couple of years (I’ve been jogging, when I’ve been exercising) and got very exhausted very quickly and did fairly pathetically.  Still, I did work up a sweat.

***

I’m struggling with social/religious feelings and thoughts again, angry thoughts about Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Judaism.  A number of things I came across from the Haredi world today made me feel glad not to be Haredi.  Only one was a thing I was not previously aware of, but it was still annoying.  My life would be a lot easier if there was a local shul (synagogue) that met both my religious and social needs, but there isn’t.  This means that I feel a degree of disconnection and now even hostility to some of the values and educational resources of my shul.  It would probably also be easier if I could just “drink the kool-aid” about some things (about life in general, not just religion), but I seem to be resistant to that.  Not that there aren’t things I don’t agree with in the more modern parts of Orthodoxy, but there’s fewer of them.

Related to this, a while back I saw some articles on The Lehrhaus (here and here) that said that Modern Orthodoxy suffers from lack of a “Hedgehog Concept.”  I was unfamiliar with the Hedgehog Concept, but apparently it’s business jargon for a key core value, I assume from the Greek poet Archilochus’ saying that, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  So the Hedgehog Concept of the Yeshivish/Litvish world (the part of the Orthodox world that came out of Early Modern Lithuania) is Torah study; that of the Hasidic world is devekut (mystic unity with God); that of Habad Lubavitch Hasidim is outreach (bringing non-religious Jews to greater observance); and that of Religious Zionism is settling the land of Israel.  These are things that all Jews in those communities can aim to achieve, to a greater or lesser extent (in some cases more by funding other people doing it than doing it themselves).

Modern Orthodoxy suffers from a lack of a Hedgehog Concept.  In theory, Modern Orthodoxy is about combining traditional practise and scholarship of Judaism with modern academic scholarship.  In reality, only a relatively small number of scholar-rabbis are able to do that.  This helps explain the lack of inspiration in my life, the lack of some kind of core to define and focus my religious experience.

In the articles, Gil Perl suggested Or Amim (A Light to the Peoples i.e. making God known in the world) as the Modern Orthodox Hedgehog Concept, which he says is “a charge to take the treasure chest of wisdom, guidance, and instruction that comprises our mesora [tradition], proudly place it on the proverbial table of global discussion, and help others, unfamiliar with it, to understand its content” (brackets added).  He goes on to state that this is not missionary and is compatible with pluralistic ideas of multiple truths, saying, “My mesora is my truth. The rhythms of halakhic life are my reality.  My calling is not to convince you of their certitude, but to humbly offer you a glimpse of their beauty.” (Emphasis added.)  This is at least something that I can do in my writing – or am already doing in my blogging (which, I realised today, I have been doing for fourteen years, although not without interruption).  Whether it will work as a Hedgehog Concept for me is another question.

***

A somewhat related thought that I had last night and which I returned to when I read Sadie/Blushy Ginger’s post this morning: do people find me intimidating?  I suspect that in real life I come across as either boring, serious and/or intense to a lot of people.  I know the rabbi who gives the weekly sedra shiur (religious class on the week’s Torah reading) I go to once said that he can’t read me and I just sit there and he doesn’t know what I think of what he’s saying.

Then of course there is the fact that my blog is very Jewish even though it doesn’t have many Jewish readers.  I worry that I have too much religious detail, which is off-putting, or that people who aren’t Jewish or aren’t religious or are atheists or whatever worry that I would have negative views of them and don’t like to comment.  (For what it’s worth, I think I’m a very tolerant and non-judgemental person and have non-Jewish friends.)  I guess this is the mirror of my “I’m not frum (religious) enough” fears in the Orthodox Jewish community.

It also has to be said that I sometimes go out of my way to give a negative impression of myself in my blogging, focusing on failures more than successes, holding up my errors and mistakes (see below) as if I’m daring people to reject me.  I used to hope people I knew would find my blog (this was when I was blogging with my real name) so that they would see what a mess I was and think, “OK, now I know why he is so weird, it’s not his fault, he’s just messed up.”

***

I’ve mentioned about being locked out of my non-anonymous Doctor Who blog I thought because I hadn’t paid pay the WordPress subscription last year.  Now they have offered me the chance to subscribe again, which implied I paid last year.  So I checked my bank statement, and I did in fact pay and forgot later.  I investigated, and I got locked out because I was using a an email address that I basically only used there (to keep it separate from this account, which is linked to my main email) and… I had typed the email in wrong once and it got stuck in the autofill, so I was using the wrong email address all the time.  I didn’t notice because there was only a full stop missing.  I am not proud of this.  I would like to blame depression and stress warping my brain, or autistic rigid thinking preventing me looking at options or social anxiety stopping me contacting WordPress to investigate, but I have to admit there’s an element of incompetence there too.

Once I regained access, I quickly whipped up a post publicising my non-fiction Doctor Who book with links to various websites where it’s being sold.  I’m tempted to renew the blog subscription, for the sake of £15, primarily so I can promote my non-fiction Doctor Who book there.

I just did a quick google search about advertising self-published books, and it seems a lot of people think it’s a waste of money, that the only way it’s effective is if you spend a lot on it.  Otherwise, the best way is through blogs and social media.  But I don’t really have any social media presence, and my blog has been in stasis for a year, and I never really got back into online Doctor Who fandom.  My experience is that online Doctor Who fandom these days is mostly on Twitter, which I have never got on with, rather than on blogs.

Unravelling the situation with my blog and writing the advert post took about half an hour today, but I think it was time well spent.  To be honest, I think I haven’t made any sales to anyone other than family and friends so far, so it would be good if I could sell just one copy to someone I don’t know in person (OK, one is an online friend I’ve only met once, but I’m still counting that as “in person”).

Brushes with Criminality

Sigh. I was trying to write less about disrupted sleep here, but I got woken again at 8.15am by the illegal minyan (prayer meeting) in the garden next door, which now seems to be a fully-fledged, three times a day minyan – basically an open-air shul (synagogue).  I decided I was rested enough after seven hours of sleep to get up and get an early start on the day, and was glad they aren’t davening (praying) before 7.00am, as would be normal if people were going out to work.  Later this week is the festival of Shavuot (Pentecost), when it is customary to stay up all night studying Torah and pray at first light, so I have worries of being woken at 3.30am.  I can’t bring myself to inform on a minyan, however illegal, so I have to put up with it somehow.  I don’t want to sleep with my windows shut, because it makes the room stuffy and I worry about waking with a headache.

I will try not to mention the illegal minyan again, as it’s probably not good to make this type of thing well-known (chillul hashem); there’s been enough in the mainstream press about Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews breaking lockdown here, in the US and especially in Israel.  But I can’t promise they won’t do something outrageous that I have to offload here.

Getting up early did at least mean that I davened a bit more of Shacharit (Morning Prayers) than usual, and at the proper time for once.  I also used some of that time gained to work on my novel, managing about an hour and a half in the morning. Quite a bit of that time went on research, but I wrote 600 words before lunch.  Overall I spent nearly two and a half hours on the novel today, despite doing several other things (see below), writing over a thousand words, which was very good.  So maybe some good will come of the illegal minyan after all, if it sorts out my disrupted sleep pattern.

I had a Skype call with my rabbi mentor.  Unfortunately, it was a short call and I did what I’ve been doing with therapy and have done in the past at depression group, which is just blurt out a huge load of stuff at the start, expressing a lot of thoughts and emotions that I’ve had lately, all in one go, like a tidal wave of anxious/depressive emotion.  My rabbi mentor felt that I was doing well at understanding and processing these feelings and thoughts, which is good, and he helped me with one or two specific matters.  I do feel a bit strange when I just blurt all this stuff out, though.  Slightly embarrassed, and vulnerable and exposed.  Exhausted too and even a bit shaken, which I suppose is unsurprising if I’m revealing a lot of private thoughts.

It was Mum’s birthday today.  We had a socially distanced tea in the garden with my sister and brother-in-law.  They were very nervous about getting close to Mum, so there was good social distancing.  It was good to see them again.  We’ve had some doorstep conversations, but nothing as long as this since before lockdown.  I think it’s getting harder to stick to lockdown; half lockdown is perhaps harder to maintain than full lockdown (that’s somewhat analogous to Jewish law where very difficult things are often psychologically easier to stick to than apparently trivial ones).  I know I’ve complained about people bending the rules, but I think Mum would have been really upset if she couldn’t have seen my sister, given that she starts the next bout of chemo tomorrow.  I tend to be very rule-abiding (I suspect that people on the autism spectrum tend to be either extremely rule-focused or totally anarchic) and I’m not sure what I would have done if I had been the person who lived outside the family home.

Then we had a more legitimately lockdown-approved Zoom talk with my Israeli family, but I found it draining after a while especially as it was a long call.  It left me somewhat peopled out, particularly after the tea with my sister and BIL.

As it was Mum’s birthday, we had takeaway and watched the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) comedian Ashley Blaker’s latest show, which was posted online for people who paid.  Then I went for a walk in the gathering dusk, as I had been sitting all day and needed to stretch my legs.  I managed forty-five minutes of Torah study too, although it was a bit of a struggle not to feel bad about not making it up to an hour.

I decided to break my “no screens after 11pm” rule (which is much honoured in the breach anyway) as after such a busy day with so much peopling, I need a passive TV-watching break to avoid burn out tomorrow.

***

Two things that have left me thoughtful today:

  1. My rabbi mentor says he enjoys my weekly devar Torah (Torah thought).  OK.  My uncle said that he enjoys it to and has been forwarding it with some other divrei Torah to his friends from shul (synagogue).  I’m not quite sure what I think of that.
  2. Ashley Blaker told some really rude jokes in his act.  Jokes I won’t repeat here because I would blush.  This has made me ponder a lot more about what the rules are in the frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) community and who has the impunity to break them, given that he is very frum-looking (beard, dark suit, velvet kippah (skullcap), black hat).  It matters to me because I’m writing about sexual violence in my novel, which I feel is an important subject, but I wonder if that will get me a bad reputation (I would do it anyway, I think).  Is this one of those cases where if you ask the question, you’ll be told it’s forbidden, but if you have the chutzpah to just do it, you can get away with it?  Does the transient nature of a comedy show mean he can get away with more than in a permanent medium like print?  Unless people from his shul are in the audience, no one is going to know.  Is he assuming that any frum person who gets the sex jokes is going to have to pretend not to understand lest it become clear that they have dirty minds too?  Particularly given that part of the routine was about frum people being so naive that there are hilarious double entendres in the frum press apparently unnoticed.  Hmm.

Bits and Pieces

I watched an hour-long “based on a true story” drama, Murdered By My Boyfriend on BBC iPlayer. This was because I felt I was floundering with one thread of my novel, which deals with domestic abuse. I watched it for inspiration about handling such a plot line, although the type of abuse in my novel is somewhat different from the type in the TV programme. It did reassure me that I’m not totally on the wrong path, but it was difficult viewing and I could hardly watch it by the end. I stayed upset for quite a while afterwards.

I sometimes struggle to understand how people can deliberately hurt other people. That’s probably good for my moral development, but not so good for being a writer. It’s horrifying that every week in the UK, two women are murdered by their partners. If that was being done by a serial killer, or some kind of terrorist group, the papers would be full of it. Instead, it’s ignored.

I feel awkward writing about violence against women as a man. Like whatever the equivalent is of a ‘white saviour’ for feminists. But I became aware from both online accounts and what people said in group therapy and support groups that I’ve attended that the link between abuse (of all kinds) and mental illness is very strong, so it seemed worth talking about in a novel about mental illness. I also became aware that very few people in the frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) community are talking about it, for various reasons. Jewish Women’s Aid has posters in some Jewish shops and shuls (synagogues) and even had a billboard poster up at one point, but a while back they ran an advert in The Jewish Weekly with one woman’s story and there were complaints about how graphic it was in its description of sexual violence, which makes me feel there’s a 1950s atmosphere in parts of the community where some things are just not spoken about. Given that the number of people writing any fiction in the frum world is vanishingly small, it seemed important to talk about it.

***

I got woken up early by another morning minyan (prayer meeting) in the garden next door. Years ago I heard a definition of fundamentalism that has always stuck with me:

“If you’re absolutely certain that you’re making the proper decision, and what you’re doing is the right thing to do — it doesn’t matter if you hurt people in the process. You don’t even owe them an apology.”

I’m beginning to wonder if my next-door neighbours are meeting that definition of fundamentalism. To be honest, this has attitude little to do with religion and more to do with selfishness and entitlement (e.g. Donald Trump). It still annoys me though.

***

I don’t have so much to talk about today in terms of emotions and thoughts. There were some anxious and despairing thoughts at times, but I’m trying not to focus on them, although I’m still struggling to remember to greet them and sit with them.

I went for a reasonably good run, considering it was hotter than I expected. I did get a bit of an exercise migraine, although not too bad. E. and I had our weekly Torah study Skype chat, which was good.

***

I’m struggling with keeping up with the news at the moment, but “Is Cummings Going?” ought to be a headline somewhere.

Self-Hating Jew

Our Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) next-door neighbours held more socially distanced, but (I think) still lockdown-breaking, minyanim (prayer meetings) in their garden over Shabbat (the Sabbath) again. There was also some kind of gathering or party going on last night in the garden of the house behind us. They didn’t go in until 2am and made a lot of noise before then. Strangely, I got bothered more by the minyanim and couldn’t work out why, as the party seemed more antisocial (assuming they weren’t all from the same house, which is possible).

My eventual reasoning was that, despite being an Orthodox Jew myself, I’m carrying around a lot of anger and possibly other emotions around Orthodox Jews and my place in the frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) community, particularly around feeling that I never found my place in the community, that I have to hide who I really am or fear ostracism, as well as anger about people not being friendly or setting me up on shidduch dates when I was single. It’s something I might bring to therapy this week, although there is some other stuff I’d also like to talk about (I might have to prioritise). The anger and hatred is kind of weird. Jewish self-hatred is a real thing, but it’s usually associated with people right on the edge of the community, not people who are religious and integrated to the community (and I am integrated on some level).

I think it ties in with my view of God as punitive, or at least indifferent to me. I don’t believe God is punitive or indifferent to other people, just to me. It might be related to low self-esteem in general, or to my feelings of not fitting into the community. Not being a good enough Jew, which then leads to anger back at the community.

***

Otherwise it was a fairly normal Shabbat. I struggled to sleep again on Friday night. I’m not sure why. It seems to happen sometimes without cause, but this time it could have been the noise (although insomnia carried on for two hours after the noise stopped), the fact I drank some Diet Coke at dinner (I don’t know why I’ve got in the habit of doing this again, although I’m not convinced it really makes much difference) or the fact that I forgot to take my tablets until right before I went to bed. The latter is probably the key factor.

Because I couldn’t sleep, I lay in bed for quite a long time with my thoughts, which was not comfortable. I thought I was feeling more comfortable with my thoughts and in control of them lately, but obviously not. I can’t remember exactly what I was thinking, just that it was unpleasant. I did intermittently get up and read, a mixture of The Siege: The Saga of Israel and Zionism (which is really good) and Batman graphic novels.

I fell asleep around 4am and slept through the morning, being woken intermittently by the Shacharit minyan (Morning Prayer Service) next door and falling asleep again (I dreamt I wrote them an angry letter of complaint), then I slept for three more hours after lunch. Not good. I will struggle to sleep tonight. I did wake from my nap refreshed though, which was good as generally I don’t feel so refreshed from sleep, either night sleep or naps.

Other than that I just did some Torah study and ate with my parents. There’s not a lot else to report.

Building Characters

I spent the day wrestling with negative feelings of depression and despair. I would feel OK, and then something would set me off again. It has to be said, though, that my mood was mostly reasonably good and optimistic, particularly in the afternoon (mornings are still hard). That said, little things can bring me down.

***

Every year there is a “Forty Under Forty” list in The Jewish News listing the top forty communal leaders in the Jewish community under the age of forty, whether religious, political or cultural leaders. It’s a fairly horrible concept and I try to avoid it, as there are always people I know on the list, and it makes me feel like I’ve wasted my life while other people have built careers and made a difference to the world, particularly as I won’t be “under forty” for much longer. Looking at part of the list today (it’s always published in installments) I saw someone I knew, but I didn’t feel as jealous or despairing as I might have done in the past. Likewise, lately I don’t feel as jealous and lonely when people much younger than me get married or have children. And I don’t carry as much anger and resentment as I used to about my childhood and adolescence. I feel I’ve made a lot of progress in therapy dealing with my issues. And yet I can’t seem to permanently shake the depression, despair, loneliness and other negative feelings. I feel like I’ve done everything I should do to recover, but it still doesn’t help. Somehow it persists.

***

I keep checking my email, blog reader, WhatsApp… I know when I do this it’s a mixture of boredom and loneliness. Just wanting to connect with someone, but usually not finding anyone or, worse, making the wrong kind of connection, usually by seeing something that upsets me, typically by making me feel attacked.

***

I probably shouldn’t relate all my dreams here (the ones I can remember anyway) as other people’s dreams are not usually as interesting as they think they are, but I had a classic anxiety dream about being in my rabbi mentor’s yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) on the day he was taking his rabbinical exams and feeling that everyone was looking down on me for not being religious enough. I wonder what that could be about? Sometimes you don’t need to be Sigmund Freud to work it out. There was also some weirdly OCD stuff about trying to do the ritual hand washing on waking and before eating, but not being able to find a big enough cup.

***

I have a new webcam, which I ordered weeks ago, and which has finally arrived. So that’s good. I had been borrowing my Dad’s laptop for every Zoom or Skype interaction. In other ways I feel like I’m ready for lockdown to be over. I know, everyone else reached this point weeks, if not months, ago. But lockdown seemed to suit me: I didn’t have to meet people, there weren’t jobs to worry about applying for, I didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything, I had time to write. But I feel I probably should be trying to move my life on and get back in the habit of actually doing things other than writing, jogging, cooking and cleaning. Plus, it would be good to move towards moving my relationship with E. on. And seeing other people, actually going to shul (synagogue) and to physical shiurim (religious classes) would probably be good for me, not least because I feel like my social anxiety is getting worse while I avoid people. Online socialising isn’t working so well for me, as it’s just made me more dependent on likes and follows, behaviour which I thought I had grown out of, and, as I’ve said before, I struggle with Zoom calls – too many people, too many things happening at once, too easy to psychologically check out and refuse to interact with other people.

***

I felt blocked in my writing this week, so I emailed a writer friend to ask for advice. She recommended some books and also some exercises to try to clarify (to myself) who my characters are and what they want. I learnt two things from this. The first is that I have a weak idea of what my secondary hero wants or needs, which is probably why she has felt like the biggest weak link in the novel so far, too vaguely written to really cohere or stand out.

The second is… well, this is a slightly edited version of the character profile I created for the hero, who is kind of a fictionalised version of myself (I was going to say “Mary-Sue,” the fan term for a character who is a wish-fulfillment figure for the author, but this character is more an anti-Mary Sue, annoying, self-obsessed and useless).

  • Wants/needs: consciously wants love, acceptance.  Unconsciously needs to accept himself, his autism, his depression
  • Weakness: lack of self-knowledge
  • Obstacles that play to weaknesses/show growth: struggle in environments not designed for autistics; contemplate suicide because can’t cope with self.  Not upset with God or world, just with himself.  Can’t accept his autism/depression means that he needs to live differently to other people.
  • Choice: choose life or death, which is choosing to love himself
  • What he learns to achieve his goal: to choose life because even without God, he recognises his own uniqueness and worth.

I think it’s helped clarify my main character, but it’s certainly helped clarify my own needs. To be honest, “lack of self-knowledge” isn’t really my fault, but that of the character (who is really me some years ago, not me now). I understand myself, I just struggle to put what I’ve learnt in therapy and elsewhere into practice, hence the comment above about having addressed issues, but been unable to move on. Still, it was interesting to realise I still haven’t really accepted my depression and autism (the latter partly because it’s still undiagnosed) and my consequent need to live a different life to other people with different standards of success. For example, for me success might be maintaining reasonably positive mood over time, engaging on some level with my community and friends and getting some kind of job (which probably won’t be high-powered/high-stress) as opposed to having a dynamic career, getting married and having children, having lots of friends and taking some kind of community leadership position.

The Man Who Fell to Earth

(I’m trying the new WordPress editor, and having a slight autistic change freak out that it looks complicated (what are ‘blocks’?) and I can’t get it to work, and the old editor worked fine, so why did they change it?)

I woke up from strange dreams again, something about being in therapy, but not knowing what to say (a representation of my fears that I’m not ‘really’ depressed?), stuff about the reliability of the Bible (I even remembered this book in my dream), stuff about pigeons trying to fly in through a door to a balcony, but I couldn’t get too close to chase them away because there was no balcony, just a drop of several stories (I’ve never liked pigeons and in the summer I do worry about birds flying into the houses through the open windows). There was some stuff about university too, I think, probably the product of raking that over for my novel. And something about having a son and calling him Lemuel (‘Dedicated to God’ – maybe my unconscious is more certain of my religiosity than I am?).

I woke up depressed and self-loathing again. After breakfast and lunch I felt better though. I tried to work a bit on my novel and got bogged down again, so I looked at some advice a writer friend had sent me yesterday when I emailed to ask about writer’s block, which referred me to some books (that I ordered on Ebay) and Tweets (which I read).

I was doing OK until I read something religious that upset me. I’m not going to repeat it here, because I don’t want to seem so negative about frum (religious Orthodox Jewish culture), but it did make me feel that I will never fit in. This prompted a dip back into, “I can’t write, I’m never going to be a writer” angst, and I realised I had been sat at my computer for three hours reading, writing, thinking and, yes, procrastinating, and that I should probably take a break. I guess it’s good that I realised what was happening to me and acted on it.

(I did later manage half an hour or so of Torah study despite this.)

On my break, I went for a walk. While I was out, I had the intense feeling of alienation that I used to associate primarily with depression, but which I increasingly feel is due to autism, or maybe to autism and depression. The feeling of, “I don’t belong here, this isn’t the world I’m supposed to live in.” Feeling like I can never fit in and do the things a “normal” person is supposed to do, particularly career-wise. I’m worried today that I will never be a writer of any kind, let alone a fiction writer. There isn’t really anywhere to go with this line of thought, though. Either it will work out or it won’t. As I’m struggling to find other work, there aren’t a lot of other options out there other than persevering with my novel. Like most of the things I’m worried about at the moment, there is literally nothing at all I can really do about this beyond sticking at it.

***

I’m not sure what to do with kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. Mysticism has never meant much to me and part of me is a kind of Maimonidean religious rationalist, but in recent years I’ve become somewhat more interested in kabbalah as a way of thinking about God and about life that doesn’t necessarily require absolute literal belief in its tenets. Although my thoughts about this could change at any time (and I don’t agree at all with practical kabbalah, segulahs and other forms of magical thinking and magic).

I was aware of the idea of different souls leading to different personalities. According to Chabad.org there are seven types of soul (‘G-d’ is the Jewish way of deliberately spelling ‘God’ incorrectly so that the writing doesn’t have any sanctity):

Chesed (Kindness) — A soul whose service of G‑d is characterized by a calm and flowing love. This soul is also overflowing with love for his fellows.

Gevurah (Severity) – A soul who serves G‑d with awe and a flaming passion. This soul is also highly disciplined, with high expectations of himself and others.

Tiferet (Harmony) – The soul who has achieved a perfect synthesis of Kindness and Severity. This is accomplished through the study of Torah. Tiferet is also the source of the soul’s capacity for compassion.

Netzach (Perseverance) – A soul who is constantly battling and struggling, but is ultimately triumphant.

Hod (Humility) – The soul who exemplifies self-abnegation in favor of allowing itself to be overwhelmed by G‑d’s goodness.

Yesod (Foundation) – The soul whose unique talent is establishing giving relationships, intellectually or otherwise.

Malchut – (Royalty) The soul who serves its Creator in a majestic manner.

I only used to know about the first two and I thought that, inasmuch as this idea had any validity, I would come from Gevurah, which contains the idea of discipline and especially limits and boundaries, which seemed to sum up my restricted approach to life. But I am frankly not as disciplined as I once thought/hoped myself to be and now I wonder if I should see myself as coming from Netzach, the idea of conflict and struggle over my mental health being ongoing in my life since adolescence.

As I say, I’m not sure how much validity any of this has as a representation of the real world, but as a Jewish myth/thought system, maybe it would help me to re-frame my life to see conflict as part of my life and mission rather than something I should try to get through quickly in order to find my “real” mission. It would also be positive to see triumph as something innate in me (‘Netzach‘ means both ‘eternity’ and ‘victory’). Interestingly, this website associates Netzach with bitachon, trust in God, something I feel myself lacking.

Anyway, I’m going to stop now as you can really jump down the rabbit hole with kabbalistic stuff if you aren’t careful.

Quick, Let’s Drink a Million Cups of Tea While We Procrastinate

That title…  I think I’m clever and funny when really, I’m not.

I just feel inadequate today.

I was pretty exhausted last night after Skype therapy and Zoom shiur (religious class) and I went to bed early (for me at any rate – midnight) hoping I would get up earlier today, but I still slept very late.  I just feel so depressed and exhausted on waking.  Maybe it’s not surprising given that I had a very draining day yesterday.  I think a lot of the problem about waking tired is to do with low blood sugar, which has always affected me badly, although I don’t plan on getting up in the middle of the night to eat.

Even after breakfast and getting dressed, I still felt really depressed and exhausted.  Struggling to do anything.

***

I feel like I’ve sunk into some kind of religious crisis (again) without really realising how.  Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav says that religious crises are inevitable and unending in this world; as soon as you achieve some kind of certainty about something, it brings with it a whole load of new unknowns for you to worry about (it’s not clear if the unknowns are completely new, or old ones on a deeper or more intense level).  I believe in God, but I find it harder and harder to connect to Him and to Torah and mitzvot (commandments).  I know a lot stems from not fitting in to a religious community for moral and practical support and also feeling like I’ve transgressed the community’s standards in ways that I’m not always sure about (as in, I’m not sure if I’ve transgressed them or not).  I’ve always felt alone, even in my religious practice, even when I was a more regular attendee at shul (synagogue).  I’ve always felt that in the final analysis, it came down to just me and God without other people really being involved.  That’s probably a horrible thing to say, but it ties in with my lack of friends, my difficulties communicating with my parents, the fact that I was single for most of my adult life and my fascination with solipsism and solipsistic fiction.

I guess now I feel that I have to “sell” Orthodox Judaism to E. or she won’t join me in it and I don’t know how to sell something I feel so increasingly equivocal about.  Depressive anhedonia is a big part of the problem too, more so than anything theological.  It’s hard to enjoy Judaism when I can’t enjoy anything, even things that are easier to enjoy.

Ashley Leia asked me on the last post if I felt that God causes my suffering.  I said yes.  Conceptually that doesn’t bother me so much. I came to the conclusion a while back that we aren’t here on Earth to be happy, but to grow, and growth often requires suffering as a stimulus, therefore suffering is to be accepted as part of the human condition in this world.  Nevertheless, I feel exhausted and not sure how to carry on sometimes. It just feels so overwhelming and unending. There is definitely a difference between accepting suffering intellectually and feeling emotionally accepting of it.  I can accept it intellectually (I know other people have it much worse than I do), but it’s hard to accept emotionally.  Hard to accept that I might always feel like this, that I’ve lost the life I thought I would have at this stage of life (career, wife, kids, community, self-love).  It’s hard to see so many other people apparently living that life with no idea if I will ever achieve it.

***

It doesn’t help that I’m feeling quite blocked with my writing at the moment.  I sit in front of the computer, drink a lot of tea, idly surf online and blog, but it’s a struggle to write anything for the novel.  I wonder if the story I’m trying to tell is too complicated for me, or if I’m cut out to be a writer at all.  Maybe it was absurd to think I could write about domestic abuse, a subject which I have not experienced directly.  All my writing about  it seems crass and ill-formed.

***

Religious crisis, low mood and writer’s block are probably connected with isolation.  I haven’t been on the depression group Zoom call for weeks as I get too tired after therapy now, which is on the same day.  E. and I haven’t spoken much for the last few days because of Shabbat and my shiur yesterday and E.’s workload, although we did speak today.  Some people who used to comment here haven’t done so for a while and nor have some bloggers I follow/am friends with posted on their blogs lately and I’m worried if everyone is OK, or if they’re angry with me and are avoiding me/have taken me off their friends’ list.  I guess I feel isolated.  I didn’t have much in the way of social contact even before lockdown, but I feel like I’m losing more of it.  My shul (synagogue) is doing another Zoom Kabbalat Shabbat service (beginning of the Friday evening service), but I found the last one awkward and uncomfortable, so I probably won’t do it again.  My parents are hoping to have my sister and brother-in-law over either socially distanced in the garden or via Zoom on Sunday to celebrate my Mum’s birthday, so hopefully that will help, although I’m nervous about even socially distanced meeting.

***

The Kotzker Rebbe spoke about the evil inclination stealing “the delicate chord of truth from your heart”.  After that, it no longer worries if you work or pray or study, because without the chord of truth, whatever you do is of no interest to him (i.e. it’s meaningless).  I feel like I lost the chord of truth a long time ago.

***

I’m just feeling today that I failed at everything.  I failed at being a good Jew.  I failed at being a good writer.  I failed at being a good blogger.  I worry that I’ve failed at being a good friend and boyfriend, and probably also at being a good son and brother.

I feel that other people I meet online have a reason to be mentally ill (often abuse or trauma of some kind), but I haven’t experienced anything bad, I’m just too useless to function properly.  I should get over myself.  Alternatively, they produce something with their pain, some art or something to help others, something that somehow justifies and explains what they endured.  I haven’t managed that either.

Part of me says that this is just my inner critical voice speaking, but it seems kind of reassuring to say that.  Much harder to confront the reality of having failed at everything I tried.

The sudden upswing of depression might also be because Mum has asked me to go with her to her oncologist appointment tomorrow.  Mum likes to have someone with her, as she gets overwhelmed sometimes and misses information.  Dad went to the first few meetings, then COVID-19 happened and non-patients were not allowed in the hospital.  Now one non-patient is allowed in “At their own risk” (which is a bit scary in itself).  Mum wants it to be me rather than Dad because he may not be able to park the car there (I’m not sure why) so will have to drop us off, go home, and come back to collect us later.

There is also some genuine fear about me and E., in that we know that we both have real anxieties about the relationship over things that we can’t do anything about at the moment and we have to just sit with those feelings and see what happens in the long term.

***

Achievements today: I cooked dinner (spicy rice and lentils), and spent forty minutes or so researching and writing my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week.  It’s easier to write a devar Torah sometimes (like today) than it is to study Torah for some reason, perhaps to do with concentration and motivation.  I was also anxious that I would not find enough material for this weeks’ sedra (Bamidbar, focusing on the census of the Israelites in the wilderness – not easy to talk about) so was I trying out ideas and looking for sources when I found something.

I went for a run, which I hoped would help my mood, but I struggled to run, walking lots of the time, partly because of depression, but also because of the heat and, in the second half, an exercise migraine.  I had a lot of negative thoughts buzzing around my brain: that I’ve disappointed my parents and never given them any naches (reflected glory from children or grandchildren); that E. will realise sooner or later what a useless, pathetic, needy, screwed up boyfriend I am and leave me (she’s told me I’m catastrophising about this, but it was still what I was thinking); that I’ll probably die lonely, impoverished and unloved, maybe even homeless and living on the streets…  just a negative thought spiral.

I came back too exhausted and migrainey to think negative thoughts; post-migraine I tend to feel physically fragile, but emotionally OK (a rather extreme and counter-productive way of shifting a low mood).  However, the negative thoughts are already creeping back.  I need to daven Ma’ariv (say Evening Prayers) and I want to do a little Torah study if I can today, even if it’s only a few minutes.  I want to chill out in front of the TV for a bit, but it’s getting late and I’m not sure if that will just keep me awake later.

***

The rabbi from my shul WhatsApped me to check how I am, which was nice.  I do feel a bit more a part of the community when he does that.  I’m not quite sure what to say at the moment, though.

***

There aren’t many jobs being advertised at the moment, unsurprisingly, but I just got an advert for a “Cybrarian” which sounds (a) horribly like something out of Doctor Who*, (b) horribly like something from dot-com boom of the nineties and (c) like a overly-modern company where I would not fit into the corporate culture, particularly as they put “The ability to laugh at yourself” on the job description.  How do they interview for that?  I worry they make fun of you and then say, “What’s the matter?  Can’t you laugh at yourself?”  Mind you, they put “a profound love and passion for Technology [sic]” on the list too, which sounds even more disturbing, particularly as “Technology” was capitalised throughout the advert and job description.

* Which has given us Cyberman, Cybergun, Cybercontroller, Cybermat, Cyberplanner, Cyber-megatron bomb, Cyberleader, Cyberwar, Cyberbomb (“The most explosive devices in the universe!”), Cyberlieutenant, Cybermite, Cyberiad, Cyberium and Cyberdrone.

Religious Overtones

I felt a bit better today, at least once I managed to get up and get going.  I did give in to OCD compulsions before I ate breakfast.  Once I ate, I felt calmer though.  I feel better than I did yesterday at any rate.  It’s hard to tell when my thoughts are wonky, because what can I measure them with except other thoughts?  Philip K. Dick (one of my favourite authors) said at one point in his quest to discover if he was psychotic or religiously-inspired (or possibly having messages beamed into his head by aliens, or the CIA – all these were possibilities for him) “Either I’ve invented a whole new logic or, ahem, I’m not playing with a full deck.”  I feel like that sometimes.

I had early therapy today and then a shiur (religious class) over Zoom in the evening.  The timing pretty much made writing out of the question, even if I had felt less depressed.  I woke up early, but was depressed and fell asleep again.  By the time I managed to get up, get dressed, daven (pray) a bit and have lunch, there was less than an hour until therapy.

***

I went for a walk after therapy and got freaked out again at the number of people around.  I know this is an “You aren’t in traffic, you are traffic” situation and I’m just as much a part of the problem as anyone else.  Still, given Mum’s compromised immune system, I’m very afraid of bringing coronavirus in and I wonder if I should start taking my exercise indoors.  I know E. hasn’t left her apartment block for two months now.  I do think there’s a mental health benefit to going outdoors and I’m reluctant to lose it.

***

I’m still thinking about religious stuff.  Community stuff first:

This is a comment I left on a previous post that I thought worth adding here, as I don’t think I’ve said it in a post before:

I’m still hopeful about finding a Modern Orthodox shul [synagogue] in America if I marry E.  Unfortunately, in the UK, most people who go to MO [Modern Orthodox] shuls are not frum [religious] at all. They are just traditional [keep elements of Judaism, but not the entirety of Jewish law], and I find it hard to connect with them.  My parents’ shul is MO and is fairly frum as MO shuls go. I used to go there (and do go there sometimes in the week), but it’s a bad fit for so many reasons: too big, too much talking in services, a chazan [cantor] and a choir I can’t stand and, because it’s my parents’ shul, I have no identity of my own there, I’m just my parents’ son.

I didn’t add that that’s the only really local Modern Orthodox shul.  There is apparently one the other side of the town, but it would take me ages to walk there and one can’t go by car or public transport on Shabbat (the Sabbath), so everywhere has to be walking distance.

***

I’ve also been thinking more theological stuff.

I think my understanding of God is quite abstract.  To be honest, once you really get involved in Jewish theology or mysticism, God becomes pretty abstract.  Richard Dawkins’ “jealous angry God of the Old Testament,” as well as being an ancient antisemitic polemic, isn’t anything that educated Jews ever believed.  I’m wary of simplistic statements like, “God is love,” “God is life,” “God is existence,” “God is the Infinite,” “God is the Other,” but any of those would be nearer to what I believe in than The Angry Old Man in the Sky.

At the same time, we’re supposed to believe we can have a personal relationship with God, on some level, and that’s hard when I believe in something so abstract and impersonal even though I don’t think there’s any theological reason preventing it.  I just struggle to see it in my life.  I also struggle to connect with Someone who has made me suffer so much.  Even if I believe it’s for my ultimate good, it’s hard to connect when I’m just afraid that things will get worse “for my own good.”  It’s not that I don’t believe good can come of suffering, because I do, I just feel I can’t cope with any more of it.

***

I also wonder what will happen to the people I care about after death.  I don’t really care what happens to me, particularly as Judaism doesn’t believe in eternal damnation and non-existence doesn’t bother me conceptually.  Still, I wonder what will happen to my friends and family who aren’t frum or who even are atheists.

Judaism is pretty vague about the afterlife.  I won’t go through the theology, from the almost total lack of mention in Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), to its importance in the Pharisee-Sadducee split, the six (actually seven) questions asked of souls in the afterlife in the Talmud,  “All Israel have a share in The World to Come,” “The righteous of the nations have a share in The World to Come,” the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith, and so on.  It’s just that people don’t discuss it much, certainly not compared with Christianity (and possibly also Islam).

Growing up, I got the impression that most people (or most Jews?  This was vague) has a share in the Next Work (“go to Heaven” in Christian-speak).  The previous rabbi at my shul seemed to think that almost no one has a share in the Next World.  Rabbi Lord Sacks got in trouble years ago for saying all religions are sources of valid truth for non-Jews.  I worry about friends and family who aren’t so religious, or religious at all.  It is hard to know what to believe about something that is so rarely explicitly addressed.  Jews don’t really do theology overtly, only disguised in mysticism or Midrash (narrative).  We just assume God will sort everything out in the end.  Maybe that’s the best approach.

***

Part of the shiur this evening was about Sefer Vayikra (The Book of Leviticus) being about how to have a personal relationship with God, but I felt that this was not developed so much.  It’s something for me to think about though – tzarich iyun (this requires investigation).

***

I spoke about some of these worries in therapy today.  I also spoke about the fact that Judaism teaches that everyone has their own mission and their own expectations of what they can do, but that it can be hard to do that when the community has a “one size fits all” approach and there is a fear of stigma, both from depression and autism and from not fitting in completely with Jewish law.  The therapist did say that regarding my relationship with, even if E. and I didn’t have differences about religion and a need to compromise there, there would be other things we needed to compromise about.

***

Just because I can’t avoid religion at the moment, the next Star Trek: Voyager episode I watched to relax after therapy involved one of the characters having a near-death experience and then deciding that the afterlife is a lie as he didn’t experience it.  This might have been more affecting if he had mentioned his religious beliefs at all over the last three and a half years.  Star Trek generally assumes that religion is something clever people and cultures grow out of sooner or later.

The Fall’s Gonna Kill You

I’m trying not to start every post writing about my sleep from the previous night, but there’s no denying that I went to bed late, slept badly, had weird dreams that upset me without being entirely sure why, and got up late, feeling depressed and exhausted. Whether that’s a symptom or a cause of what followed is not clear at this point.

I have a rush of thoughts in my head and I’m not sure I can put them all down, but they centre on Judaism and my relationship to it.  I don’t think Judaism provides much meaning to me, in a tangible everyday sense, rather than a more abstract theoretical one, and it certainly doesn’t provide much joy, although I do appreciate Shabbat (the Sabbath) even if I sleep through much of it.  It’s come to the fore lately because of my relationship to E. and the fear I have that I won’t be able to “sell” Orthodox Judaism to her if I don’t like it enough myself.  I feel that I can’t get by on autopilot any more as I’ve done for many years, but that if I don’t find a way of making it enjoyable for her, we won’t be able to get married and live together.  But I can’t leave Judaism either, because I really believe in it.  I mean, really believe.  Which I suppose must mean I get some meaning from it, even if I can’t describe how or why.

I enjoy Shabbat, as I said, which is just a wonderful sacred time away from the world.  I don’t always get meaning from Torah study, but I enjoy the “archaeological” side of studying ancient texts in foreign languages.  You decode the meaning of words and sometimes it’s something truly alien to the modern experience (of life, let alone religion), but sometimes a vivid image or idea hits you and there’s a connection across hundred s or even thousands of years between you and the author (whoever he really was).  I find that exciting.  Lately I’m getting something out of studying Sacred Fire, the sermons of Rabbi Kalonymous Kalmish Shapira in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust.  I know that’s not thousands of years ago, but (thankfully) it still seems a very different time, even though it’s technically still within living memory.  He seems to understand suffering in a way that few rabbinic sources I’ve read do, understands how it can destroy you from within and stop you keeping up with religious life, which is how I feel at the moment.

I don’t think that I get much else that’s tangible out of Judaism, though, certainly not from the social aspect, although I doubt I would fit in anywhere.  As I said in a comment on the last post, I think unconsciously I don’t want to fit in anywhere; at any rate, whenever I join a new community, I start thinking up reasons why they could never accept me, which causes me to hold back and not be accepted.  Possibly I should just wait until people actually reject me rather than preempting them.  I can’t imagine living a life without Judaism though.  Secularism, in both its Enlightenment and Postmodern guises just seems so hollow and meaningless, far more so than Orthodox Judaism.  But Orthodox Judaism as it is usually presented, in both its Modern Orthodox and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) guises just seems impossible for someone with all my issues.

The previous rabbi at my shul (synagogue) said that one needs to separate the emotional religious questions from logical ones.  Not that one is right and the other wrong, but that emotional questions need emotional answers, not logical ones and vice versa.  From that point of view, I’m in need of emotional answers, not logical ones.  Similarly, my rabbi mentor told me that when he was training as a counsellor and Jewish student chaplain that he was taught that when presented with a question of faith to address the personal problem beneath it.  He said that at the time he thought that was really offensive (to assume that every question of faith is really hiding a personal problem), but as he became more experienced, he saw that there was some truth in it.

From that point of view, the personal problem is obvious.  It is well-known that the frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) community assumes every adult is married.  It is also true that being married “locks” a person into frumkeit (religious culture) by making it harder to drop out (because of the difficulties it would entail for the marriage).  Perhaps if I’d found a frum spouse in the UK I would have swallowed my reservations about the frum world(s) to get married, whether the lack of passion and religious commitment in the Modern Orthodox world or the numerous intellectual reservations I have about the Haredi worldview.  Maybe I would have lived with the cognitive dissonance in either world, locked in by my marriage.

But I was unable to find a spouse in the frum community, and then I ended up with E., who is not frum.  Now I feel pulled in two directions: I still have an intellectual commitment to frumkeit, but I struggle to have an emotional connection with it, and now I am aware that I could make E. and my life much easier and probably more fun by simply dropping a lot of frum commitments.  It is hard to know what to do.

***

I feel upset with myself for what I wrote in the comment to this post.  It was true, but I felt I shouldn’t have written it.  I shouldn’t involve other people in my issues (as if I haven’t done that already to E. and my family) and I shouldn’t voice my resentment at my failure to be frum.

I worry about not fitting in with people here online too, although if ever people have chosen to be around me based on my deepest inner thoughts, it’s on my blog.  I wonder what people make of me, whether they think I’m a good person, and whether I give a negative impression of Orthodox Judaism.  I hope I don’t present Judaism in a really bad way just because of my issues.

***

That’s pretty much where my brain was all day today.  Feeling that I’m a bad Jew and that the system is rigged against people like me, but that there’s nothing I can do about it, and worried about what it means for my relationship.  Feeling like a fraud and not sure what I should do or where I should go.

I tried to work on my novel for an hour and a half, but I was too distracted.  I procrastinated a lot and only wrote 200 words before giving up.  I felt that my writing isn’t going anywhere, not this book and quite possibly not any books.  Which is another reason E. shouldn’t date me, because I don’t bring anything to the relationship financially.  As well as my inability to function for prolonged periods of time, whether due to depression or autism.

I’m going to post this earlier than usual, because I need to dump these thoughts out of my head.  Then I’m going to go for a run and see if that helps my mood.

Anger and Resentment

I had a not so good Shabbat (Sabbath).  It wasn’t bad exactly, just not great.

Our Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) next door neighbours had a minyan (prayer quorum) in their garden again for all the Shabbat prayer services.  I got annoyed about this because I worry about whether it could expose Mum to coronavirus.  Last week some rabbis from the local community sent out some guidelines saying that now lockdown has lifted a little, garden minyanim are OK, but only if people stay in their own garden and just daven (pray) at the same time as their neighbours.  This on the other hand was ten men in one garden and it annoyed me a lot (plus there was the noise when I was trying to pray in my own room).  So that upset me.

I was tempted to write a load of angry stuff about Haredim, given that there have been a LOT of incidents of Haredi Jews breaking lockdown in the UK, US and Israel, some of which have got into the mainstream media as a result of the police breaking gatherings up.  I decided I shouldn’t stereotype, because some Haredi Jews are keeping lockdown, but not only have they got themselves a bad name, they’re giving other Jews a bad name too, which upsets me.

I guess I have a degree of anger and frustration over the frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) community (I’m deliberately blurring the line between Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox there).  I felt that I wasn’t particularly well supported with my mental health or integrating into shuls (synagogues) and the wider community.  I don’t get many Shabbat meal invitations, as single people in the frum community normally do and certainly not many people tried to find me a wife they way the community “should” do for “normal” people. I know a lot of people with similar issues to me (“older” singles, depressed, ba’alei teshuva (became religious later in life), not accepting certain Haredi beliefs and practices) complain of being marginalised in the community.  I haven’t experienced that clearly, but it could be a factor.  I hang out sometimes on… not antiHaredi blogs per se, but blogs by people who see problems in the Haredi world that they want to change (or mock).  It’s easy to get sucked into a negative, critical attitude, particularly as I don’t really subscribe to a lot of things the Haredi world believes in.

On the other hand, I admit I feel like a square peg in a round hole not just here but in every community I try to fit into (e.g. Doctor Who fandom, group therapy).  I never feel like I fit and that’s probably at least partly my fault, or the fault of my social anxiety and high functioning autism.  “High functioning” can be a bit of a misnomer, as there can be plenty of situations, especially social situations, where I don’t function well at all.  I feel like it’s partly my fault and I should find a healthier way to work through my anger and resentment.  I worry that even if I find a Modern Orthodox community that is a better fit on paper, I still won’t be able to fit in and make friends.

***

I got a bit upset around seudah shlishit (the third Sabbath meal, so effectively dinner time) today.  Mum and Dad had accepted some food from friends during the week that I wouldn’t have accepted because of kashrut (Jewish dietary law) fears and there was a bit of discussion about what to do with some other food that was OK, but had a question mark on it for another reasons.  Things became a bit tense for minute.  We didn’t have an argument, but it made me think.  I used to look forward to leaving home so I could run my kosher kitchen the way I wanted.  The reality is that because of depression, I’m thirty-six and still live with my parents and their rules.  I have to compromise.  And I have to compromise with my sister’s rules when I go there.  And on one level that’s OK, because life is about compromise and only crazy fundamentalists are happy about riding roughshod over other people in the name of Absolute Truth.  But on another level, I feel envious of other people whose families all keep the same level of kashrut.  It must be so much easier on so many levels.

***

I couldn’t sleep last night.  I had finished the Doctor Who short story collection I had been reading and didn’t feel like engaging with the history book I just started, so I ended up reading a Batman graphic novel (Death and the Maidens).  It wasn’t a particularly good one, sadly.  I hadn’t read Batman for quite some time.  I got really into it for a while, then drifted out again.  I just started a re-read of a long arc that I had mixed feelings about first time around.

I did fall sleep this afternoon, so my sleep pattern is going to be messed up now, particularly as I’m having a lot of late-night, post-Shabbat screen time, offloading here and catching up on blogs posted today.  This might be a mistake.

Well, I should probably think about bed, as it’s long past midnight now.  I’m not sure how coherent this post is, either in the abstract or to anyone who doesn’t understand the intricacies of the Orthodox Jewish community, but it’s too late to work on it any more, so here goes…

Pause

I was thinking about the fact that my autism assessment has been delayed months by COVID-19 lockdown.  The NHS hadn’t given me an idea of when it would be even before lockdown (👏👏👏), but eighteen months was the likely amount.  It’s been on hold with lockdown so it will be eighteen months after things get back to normal, whenever that is.

My relationship with E. has been on hold too.  Not literally, as we’re still Skype dating, but we wanted to move it on.  E. was trying to come over here at some point this year so we could spend some time together.  Now we don’t know if that will happen until next year.  I’m still hopeful it might happen this year.  But our hopes of having a romantic time in the summer doing outdoors stuff like going to parks and outdoor attractions is looking less and less likely.  It’s more likely to be a wet and cold November or December (although if E. is her for Chanukah that might be nice, at least if she’s up for visiting my parents).

***

It was difficult to get going today.  I just struggled to do anything other than sit in front of my laptop in my pyjamas.  I wasn’t even reading anything, just flicking through pages, too depressed to get dressed.

Later, I had my windows open and could hear our neighbour’s teenage son “learning” Talmud with another boy, both speaking very fast, throwing concepts around in fluent Yeshivish (mixture of English, Hebrew, Yiddish and Aramaic, rather incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t spent a lot of time with Orthodox Jews, or rather Orthodox Jewish men as it’s something acquired in the men-only environment of yeshiva (rabbinical seminary)).  I feel bad that I can’t study like that.  It’s not just that I can’t study Talmud like that, I can’t study any Jewish texts like that, in a chevruta (paired study).  I’m not sure how much is social anxiety about not wanting to seem stupid, how much autistic issues about thinking quickly on my feet and interacting with my study partner and how much just the way my brain functions.

I tell myself that I wouldn’t thrive in a community where only one, very narrow, form of knowledge is valued, not even Torah/Jewish studies in general, but just Talmud and really only the halakhic (legal) parts of Talmud.  That’s some consolation, but I still feel my life would be better on several levels if I could study and understand Talmud better (it would help with my thoughts for future novels).  It probably is true that, if I want to write reasonably literate novels with a Jewish background at least partially for a Jewish audience, then I have to be roughly where I am.  Any more frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) and I probably wouldn’t see writing as a worthwhile activity; any less frum and I wouldn’t have the inside knowledge to write about Judaism and Jewish life.  Still, I feel like I’m walking a weird tightrope sometimes, and I do sometimes wish I had spent a year in yeshiva (rabbinical seminary), even thought I probably would have found it awful from an autistic and social anxiety perspective.

I tried to work on my novel, but it was hard to focus for some reason.  It didn’t help that I was distracted by noise not only from the teenagers learning next door, but from ongoing building works somewhere nearby.  I’m not sure if they are supposed to be at work, but they have been for some days now, if not longer.  I got a load of emails too, which probably didn’t distract me so much as allow me to procrastinate more easily, but they didn’t help.  I did write about 500 words in an hour and a half or so, which isn’t too bad.  I’m glad when I’m just making progress.

I went for a walk, but I am still getting panicked by all the people outdoors and the difficulty of avoiding them.  I worry not so much for my own health, but for fear of infecting Mum with her compromised immunity.  However, I don’t think I should stay indoors all the time.  It’s difficult.  Maybe I should start doing some aerobics instead of/as well as running (which might be a good idea anyway, to use different muscles).

***

I’ve nearly finished Decalog 2, the Doctor Who short story collection I’m reading.  I’m getting a bit bored of re-reading Doctor Who novels, and re-reading in general.  I don’t have any unread novels that I feel like reading right now (generally they’re too heavy) and I’m trying not to mail order stuff during lockdown.  I fancy something a bit meatier anyway, so I’m looking at my non-fiction shelves, probably either The Islamist (Ed Hussein’s account of his experiences with radical Islam) or The Siege Connor Cruise O’Brien’s political history of the modern State of Israel.  The latter is dated (it was written in the mid-eighties), but had an intriguingly good review on The Jewish Review of Books a while back as still a valid and worthwhile work.

Either book would violate my “no heavy books in lockdown” but I’m getting a bit sick of just reading fluff to avoid upsetting myself.  I would probably balance with some Batman graphic novels for when I’m not feeling so intellectual.

Anhedonia and Resentment

Another struggling morning.  It’s so hard to get going.  I just feel so tired and depressed.  It’s also easier to get sucked into despair and loneliness (missing E. – not exactly the dictionary definition of loneliness, but it’s hard to think what else it is) than at any other point of the day, although I am be glad that nowadays there are times when I’m less likely to be sucked in to them.

I wrote a job application, mostly tidying up my CV and template cover letter.  I decided to leave it before sending it and have another look at it tomorrow, as I was quite depressed today and didn’t think I really concentrated on it well.  I ought to be able to do the job well, but I’ve completely lost confidence in my ability to do the job I was trained for to the extent that I don’t think I can do this job and on some level don’t want to get it.  Nevertheless, I intend to send it tomorrow.

Other stuff done today: therapy (see below), thirty minutes of Torah study, a thirty minute walk, and a Skype call with E.  I had an idea for my devar Torah (Torah thought) for this week, but it needs developing and I’m not sure where to take it.

***

Therapy today was useful.  We spoke a bit about grieving for parts of my life that I lost or never had (e.g. the stereotypical frum (religious Orthodox Jewish life)) rather than internalising them as a critical internal voice (e.g. “I’m useless because I’m not married).  We also spoke about the persecutor-victim-rescuer drama triangle, a relationship model where all three roles are unhealthy (“relationship” in this context means any relationship of people, not necessarily a romantic one).  I think a lot of my friendships/romantic/would-be romantic relationships in the past were victim-rescuer relationships, one way or the other, whereas with E. that’s not the case.  It’s a lot healthier; even though both of us have a lot of issues, we don’t really play the victim or rescuer, we support each other as equals and have good boundaries.

***

One thing I touched on in therapy was the feeling I have of God being critical and punitive, even though that’s not the type of theology I was brought up with or read nowadays.  It’s hard to see where that comes from except my general internal critical voice, which is hyperactive.

Related to that (which I didn’t discuss in therapy), is that I’m still struggling to emotionally connect with God or Judaism.  I was trying to work out earlier how much Jewish stuff I would still do if I knew there was no reward or punishment for it.  I would still keep Shabbat, because I feel that’s very positive for me in a very tangible way.  I would still study Torah, but maybe shift my focus (then again, maybe not).  Keeping kosher doesn’t bother me so I would keep that up.  I might reduce prayer.  It’s hard to tell.

Looking at the last paragraph, I looks like overall I would stick with most of Jewish practice: (Shabbat, Torah, kashrut and davening covers the bulk of daily Jewish practice for a non-married person.  I just wish it brought me more joy.  Is it the lack of connection to God that strips it of joy or is it the depressive anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure)?  Because obviously depending on what the cause is, the solution would be very different.  It’s not like there’s much joy in my life from other sources, so it could well be that I just don’t experience much joy or pleasure.

E. and I have been studying Pirkei Avot, the volume of Talmud that deals with ethics, together.  She keeps saying that while it’s interesting and some of it seems reasonable, it wouldn’t change her life.  I’m not sure if I can think of a single Jewish teaching that changed my life in that way.  I think it’s a cumulative effect of learning lots of things and doing lots of things that made me more religious.  Nevertheless, I am aware that a lot of my religious growth was driven by not wanting to be a hypocrite in picking and choosing elements of Jewish belief and practice, and that other people won’t necessarily feel the same need for consistency.  Indeed, outside of certain parts of the Orthodox Jewish community, pick and choose Judaism is the norm.

I would say that I doubt I could pass my religiosity to others because of that lack of joy and focus on integrity, but somehow I have influenced people around me to become more frum in some ways, even if not as much as me, so obviously I’m doing something right, I just don’t know what.

***

I do struggle with feelings of jealousy connected to anhedonia, feeling resentful and upset that other people can enjoy their lives whereas my enjoyment has been limited for the last twenty years and not that great even before that.  The most resentment and jealousy is over sex and over religion, people who enjoy their religious lives and find meaning and joy in it as well as friendship and community.

I don’t know why these two areas are the big sources of resentment for me.  I have never been a great traveller, but I don’t really resent people who do travel, perhaps because I was taken on a number of holidays in Europe as a child.  But I don’t resent people who have been to Asia or South America or other places I’ve never been to.  I don’t really resent people who can drink alcohol safely (which I’ve always been too scared to do) or who can drive (which I’ve also always been too scared to do).  I suppose I do feel resentful when there’s a party or social community event and I’m too depressed, autistic and socially awkward to attend.  Even so, sex and religion seem to be the big sources of resentment.  Or maybe I’m just confronted with them more often.

***

I was thinking crazy stuff today, at least before therapy.  I don’t know if I can put it in words, but I guess there were elements of catastrophising, self-blame, repressed anger and despair.  I tried to write the job application, but then I get sucked into procrastination online, and that triggered other thoughts and feelings (see the next paragraph).  I’m trying to notice when I’m catastrophising or self-blaming or worrying about stuff that is out of my control, or getting angry with people who I have now cut out of my life, but it can be hard to do that straight away.

***

I saw a comment online earlier that listed “severe depression” as being up there with drink, drugs, diseases, “several” divorces and domestic violence as the only things that would stop “Any eligible Orthodox Jewish man” meeting the proverbial “‘nice’ eligible Orthodox Jewish woman.”  Well, I did find a nice Jewish girl, fortunately, but I guess this is why I had to go outside of the frum community.  Still, “depression is as bad as domestic violence”… talk about stigma.  Reminds me of another article I saw years ago, on a secular website this time, that basically said if you have treatment-resistant depression, you’re never going to find a romantic partner, and that’s not fair, but life’s not fair, so deal with it.  It really was that blunt.

***

Boots has sold out of hair clippers.  I’m going to look like the abominable snowman by the time the barbers re-open.  At least I can shave again tomorrow.

Sour Grapes?

I got to bed at 1.30am last night, which is late, but is pretty early for a motzei Shabbat (Saturday evening) in the summer, when Shabbat goes out late and it takes time to tidy up, blog what happened during the day and have something to eat and just generally shift from “Shabbat mode” to “weekday mode” and then to “bed mode.”  I didn’t fall asleep until after 2.30am, though.  I did, however, manage to get up at 10.00am this morning, although not 8.00am when I first woke up and tried, and failed, to get up.  The lack of sleep was perhaps partly due to ideas for a my novel, and now for a second novel (which I’m worried may be tasteless, but trying not to think about that for now).  The second novel is very different from the first, but I’m trying to focus on one at a time.

Despite this, I struggled with writing (the first novel) today.  I don’t know why, I just felt like I was wading through treacle.  I felt drained, despite getting up early.  I was not tired exactly, but it was hard to think.  I was stuck in part of the novel that doesn’t really relate to my life and which is a necessary, but not terribly interesting part of the story, and I felt I was just spinning my wheels, trying to get through it to get to the next bit, even if I radically rewrite it in the redrafts.  I think that’s the thing to do at the moment, just to press on and try to get the first draft finished as soon as possible and then see what work needs doing on it.

I probably wrote for about an hour and a half overall today, excluding lots of procrastination mixed in there.  I think I wrote around 700 words, finishing the chapter and then reading back the finished chapter.  I also did some restructuring of the chapter divisions in the plan for the book.  I felt that I would have liked to have done more.  I just feel negative about things today.  I guess there are always going to be good days and bad days.  The word count is about 26,000 which is pretty good.  I’ve been told an average novel is 80,000 to 100,000 words, so I’m about a third of the way there, which matches where I am in my outline for the book.

I went for a thirty-five minute run, but I was sluggish there too.  It was hard to get going, I was frequently short of breath and prone to aches and cramps.  Still, I did my usual length run.

I did about thirty minutes of Torah study by myself and another forty-five with E. on Skype.

Despite achieving quite a bit, I think depression and uncertainty about my writing blended into general depression and uncertainty about my life today.  It’s hard to be objective about things like my writing, my relationship, my position in the Jewish community… so many different things affect how I see those things.  Sometimes I get terrified that my life is going irretrievably down the toilet; other times I feel more optimistic; but it is hard to tell which is objectively correct, if either.  I wish everything didn’t have to be so hard for me.

In this regard, I’m glad I have therapy tomorrow, but I’m also very nervous about it.  What if the therapist tells me I’m living my life wrong?  OK, a therapist wouldn’t say that in so many words, but what if I’m left with the conclusion that I’m living it wrongly?  I can’t see any better alternatives.

***

When I was trying to write, but procrastinating, I read about the shidduch system, the system of arranged blind dates in the Orthodox community by which people date, the system that I felt rather failed me (although as I’m happy with E., it’s good that it failed me, but I still have some resentment and feel like a second-class citizen generally).  I don’t know why I keep looking for stuff that I disagree with about the Haredi world.  Maybe it’s a sour grapes feeling.  “Yeah, I may have failed to be a good Haredi Jew, but I don’t even want to be part of your dysfunctional society, so there!”

There are things I admire about the Haredi world: the close-knit supportive families forming close-knit supportive communities; the dedication to religion, Torah study and prayer.  Yet the good is often inseparable from the bad: the hostility to outsiders, the obscurantism, the conformism.  Unfortunately, if the demographic trends in the Jewish community continue, in a couple of generations most Jews will be Haredi.  The Modern Orthodox don’t really get a look in these projections, for all that they’re a prosperous and well-educated (generally and religiously) minority at the moment.

I’m not sure why I’ve written so much about this (most of which I cut before posting), or why I’m thinking about it so much at the moment.  There is a weird, “wanting to be accepted, but also not wanting to be accepted” feeling about it.

***

shul friend emailed to check on me, which was nice.  It’s moments like that make me feel more accepted into the community.  And I will finish on that positive note.

Very Short Post

I was going to be good and not go online after Shabbat (the Sabbath), but I needed to put my computer on to send an email and record some writing ideas, so I thought I would say hi.

The shul Zoom Kaballat Shabbat (synagogue Zoom Friday evening service) was not great.  I had a lot of social anxiety, worried people could see my room, worried people would think I had switched off my webcam when it simply doesn’t work for more than a minute or two, worried I could be heard even with my microphone muted, just generally worried…  They got everyone to mute their microphones, but it meant it didn’t sound particularly loud and “together,” if that makes sense.  I probably won’t do that again.  To be honest, I think using Zoom for more than three or four people just freaks me out and confuses me a bit and I’m not sure why (probably an autism thing).

I seem to wake up around 8am and go back to sleep because I worry I haven’t had enough sleep or simply feel too overwhelmed to start the day.  I think I need to try to get up then and stay up, somehow, as it would get me some more time in the day.

That was it, really.

Oh, I get emails from various library blogs for work reasons.  I opened my email after Shabbat and found that The New York Public Library blog has just posted a massive list of “raised Orthodox, rebelled, became secular” fiction and non-fiction to go with Unorthodox.  I know I said the other day that I don’t think there’s a massive conspiracy of publishers to promote leaving Orthodox Judaism and to silence people who join it, but it seemed a bit much not to put any books that present Orthodox Judaism in a positive light on the list, not even Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and its sequel The Promise or My Name is Asher Lev and its sequel The Gift of Asher Lev, both of which deal with people who defy the conventions of their Orthodox upbringing while not entirely burning their bridges with the community and still remaining fairly religious.

Wanting To Make Good Impressions

I went to bed early last night, at least for me, before midnight, but I couldn’t sleep, probably from having screen time too late, being up speaking to E. then blogging, then finishing the episode of Star Trek Voyager that had been interrupted by the Zoom call to my family.  I think I eventually fell asleep sometime between 12.30am and 1.00am.  As I expected, I didn’t wake up any earlier today or feel any better when I did wake up.  It’s hard to function when I can carry negative experiences over to the next day, but not positive ones.

I tried to do two hours of work on my novel today, thinking if I aim for two, I might regularly hit one, rather than aiming for one and ending up not doing anything.  E. says to regard writing as my career, but I keep feeling that it’s a hobby and I shouldn’t focus on it to the detriment of family stuff, religious stuff, exercise, job hunting and so on.

I’m also worried my female protagonist isn’t proactive enough.  I’m trying to make her story more clearly a kind of parabola of being sucked into an abusive relationship and then escaping from it.  Nevertheless, I spent about two hours writing (including some procrastination time, but I think my unconscious mind keeps working even when my conscious mind is stuck in ‘idle’), producing 1,000 words.

On a related note, I listened to the Intimate Judaism panel discussion on the presentation of Hasidic sexuality in Unorthodox, the Netflix TV series based on Deborah Feldman’s memoir of leaving her strict Satmar Hasidic upbringing.  I’m vaguely worried that in writing in my novel about issues like domestic abuse or mental illness in the frum (Orthodox Jewish) world, non-Jews will have an unfairly negative view of Judaism and Orthodox Jews will feel I’m doing a hatchet job on the community, which is not my intention.  The problem is that well-adjusted people living healthy lives with healthy relationships does not make for an interesting story!  Drama is built on conflict.  In later drafts I may deliberately expend some energy on more balanced secondary characters (I will need to work on secondary characters anyway; in classic autistic style, I’ve struggled to remember that my three main characters can actually interact with other people).

I remember when the book version of Unorthodox came out.  I think several other ex-Orthodox memoirs came out around the same time.  There was a lot of discussion online about them, and whether secular publishing houses were biased in favour of religious-to-secular-journey memoirs rather than secular-to-religious-journey ones.  While the former probably does make more sense to most potential publishers and readers, I suspect the lack of secular-to-religious books is dictated by the numerically small number of ba’alei teshuva (Jews raised secular who become religious) and gerim (non-Jews who convert to Judaism) and the fact that the Orthodox community simply does not put a premium on literature.  Our energies go elsewhere, rightly or wrongly.  In any case, it is hard to imagine a ba’al teshuva memoir that wasn’t reluctant to acknowledge negatives in the religious community or which didn’t create a stark moral divide between the Orthodox and secular worlds, the former positive and the latter overwhelmingly negative.  I’m not saying it’s impossible, just that I can’t see the type of people who write “how I became frum” memoir articles for outreach websites writing it.

Although I also worry that my book is going to finish to heavily in the “God” camp.  I’m trying to work hard to earn some measure of redemption for my characters, but it’s hard.

***

Other than that, I went for a forty-five minute walk, including a few minutes in Tesco.  I was worried to see that they have apparently ended the “one in, one out” policy they had in place.  I still got the milk we needed, but I will try to avoid going back there until after lockdown, although it’s not always possible.  I spent about ten or fifteen minutes finishing my devar Torah for the week and another half an hour on other Torah study (I’m hoping to do a little more before bed).  I also backed up my iTunes library, a task that I’ve been putting off for ages and was pleasingly easier than I feared it would be.

***

My omer beard itches like crazy, and we’re only halfway to Lag Ba’Omer.

***

My shul (synagogue) is doing a special Friday night thing tomorrow.  Starting with a lechayim (why must alcohol be involved?) they are doing a Zoom Kabbalat Shabbat, the early part of the Friday night Shabbat service, where most of the singing is.  Most of this can be said before Shabbat so computers can stay on.  This will stop before Shabbat so we can turn off our computers and then finish the service by ourselves.

I’m not sure what I feel about this.  It could be good to sing Kabbalat Shabbat in a group again.  However, I feel it might feel weird over Zoom, plus I do often find the service too noisy if people are banging on tables or clapping.  Plus, we would be starting extra early, which might make things a rush, especially if tomorrow I feel burnt out from doing so much today.  Still, it would probably be good to feel part of a community again, even if only virtual.  Hmm.

Eat Pray Read Sleep Fret

It was another ordinary COVID-19 Shabbat of eating, praying, reading and sleeping.  However, there was also quite a lot of agitated thoughts about religion.  I was thinking a lot about a few things, most notably Rambam’s (Moses Maimonides’) thirteen principles of faith and his understanding of reward and punishment.  These thoughts came from a number of things I’ve been reading recently, most notably Rabbi Joshua Berman’s Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith and debates on the Rationalist Judaism blog about whether God can be meaningfully said to have “caused” COVID-19, which led me to re-read the appendix on Rambam’s view of reward and punishment at the back of Menachem Kellner’s Must a Jew Believe Anything?

Rabbi Berman’s book has left me wondering whether I really believe in Rambam’s thirteen principles in a way he (Rambam), and other Orthodox rabbis, would accept as truly Orthodox, mostly because lately I find myself drawn to some Medieval rabbis who believed that certain apparently anachronistic phrases and short passages in the Torah (e.g. the long list of Edomite kings which seems to cover more people than can easily fit in the gap from Esav’s (Esau’s) birth to the giving of the Torah) can be explained by saying that they were inserted by a later prophet or by Ezra the Scribe as an explanatory gloss, similar to a modern editorial footnote.  This seems logical, and more traditional than the answers proposed by modern biblical criticism, which see whole chunks of text as later insertions by otherwise unknown “redactors” (as this version is limited to just a few verses and still assumes some kind of prophetic source).  However, Rambam said Jews have to believe in the unchangeability of the Torah‘s text for reasons that Rabbi Berman ascribes to the influence Islamic polemics (basically, Muslims said that Jews had edited the Torah to remove references to Mohammed being the greatest prophet, so defending the integrity of the text became of paramount importance).

On the other hand, the more I think about Rambam’s view of reward and punishment, at least as explained by Kellner, the harder it is for me to see it as (a) authentically Jewish, (b) coherent in a world that no longer accepts Aristotlean metaphysics and (c) morally and emotionally viable, especially post-Holocaust.  As I understand it, Rambam’s view of the afterlife is based on Aristotle’s idea of the “acquired intellect”.  According to Rambam, the more we learn about God in this world (partly through Talmud study, but mostly through studying Greek philosophy, which he believed contained universal truths lost from Judaism in the exile), the more we perfect our intellects and join them to God’s intellect in the next world, which is the only true happiness or reward.  There is no get out clause for people who can’t do this for some external reason such as mental impairment or dying in infancy.  There is no mechanism whereby God can miraculously extend them reward.  So Rambam would say that there is no reward for the million children murdered by the Nazis.  He doesn’t believe in next-worldly punishment either, so at least they don’t go to Gehennom/Hell… but then neither does Hitler, whose only punishment was to live long enough to see his Thousand Year Reich destroyed by the Allies, which does not really seem enough.  It’s a hugely austere and elitist approach to life that in some ways I admire for its bravery and unwillingness to offer cheap comfort, but really it does nothing for me either religiously or emotionally.

As for why this upset me, well, there are two slightly different reasons, or rather the same reason in two slightly different ways.  I’m rejecting a belief, which of course leads to the fear that I may be making a mistake and rejecting true dogma and condemning myself to eternal non-existence, but I’m also rejecting communities.  Although both sets of opinions I’m rejecting were proposed by the same Jewish thinker, I’m actually rejecting two very different communities.

The first one is the mainstream Orthodox community, where Rambam’s thirteen principles are seen as the definitive Orthodox dogma.  In the Modern Orthodox community there is some debate about how they became accepted and what to do with the opinions of those rabbis who disagreed with them (and a lot did disagree – see Rabbi Marc Shapiro’s The Limits of Orthodox Theology (I haven’t read the book, but I have heard him lecture on when people stopped believing it was OK to say that God has a body (corporealism)).  Likewise, there is some acknowledgement in the Modern Orthodox world that there is no one perfect Torah text; there are minor variants out there and a history of rabbinic debate about how to preserve the text from corruption and deal with mistakes in copying.  But in the more Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world there is no legitimate academic historical interpretation in the sense that Rabbis Berman and Shapiro are engaged in, attempting to ask how beliefs became accepted and to what extent they were seen as binding at different times as well as placing them in their historical contest.

The second community is the one at the Rationalist Judaism blog.  There was a time when I felt very much a rationalist Orthodox Jew as opposed to a mystic, but over time I’ve moved on.  I’ve learnt that there are ways of understanding mysticism and myth that don’t involve anti-scientific beliefs about the world (as I explained a bit in this essay I wrote for Hevria) and I’ve moved towards a much more “religious existentialist” understanding of the world that has room for doubt, uncertainty and feelings of distance from God.

Still, it does feel a bit like I’m burning bridges in a way, because the idea of rationalism, at least in the rather simplified version discourse on the blog where it’s a shorthand for accepting evolution and an old universe and being opposed to the Haredi kollel system, was important to me once.  And Rambam is such a huge, towering figure in Jewish thought and Jewish history, sometimes seen as the most significant post-Biblical figure: jurist and legal scholar, philosopher, theologian, prolific author…  There’s even a saying that “From Moses to Moses [Maimonides] there was no one like Moses” – it’s just a huge thing to say that I disagree with his principles, even in a very small and non-committal way, given that I was brought up to see them as the essence of Orthodoxy (and despite Rabbi Berman’s arguing at length that Rambam himself walked back most of his principles in his later work, especially the one I’m most concerned about, the unchangeability of the Torah).

I haven’t felt like a member of the Rationalist Judaism blog community for a long time.  I was never a prolific commenter there and I have walked away from it at times from boredom, as it turned primarily into a prolonged attack on the Haredi world rather than a real examination of rationalist Judaism.  Still, I feel like I’m walking away on my own, trying to find where I fit.

Beyond that, there is, of course, a fear of what will happen to me after death, but I can’t pretend to believe something I don’t believe, even if I don’t at this stage accept the “prophets adding to the Torah” hypothesis either, I just find it hard to fully dismiss.  It just fits in with other worries I’ve had over time, wondering what will happen to less religious/outright atheist friends and family after death.  I believe that God is loving and just and I don’t believe that good people lose out on reward.  I also don’t believe that belief is everything.  I hope that that means some kind of eternal reward in the next world, given that good people often seem not to be rewarded in this world.

The reality is, of course, that whether or not there is an afterlife, and who gets to go to it, is nothing to do with me.  Still, reading these writers and other Jewish thinkers and historians makes me realises how small a place faith (in the Christian doctrinal sense) really has in Judaism, how much more focused on good deeds it is, and how present-focused it is.  There is almost no discussion of the afterlife in the Torah, while the Talmud contains three stories (Avodah Zarah 17a and 18a; I can’t find the third story, I think it may be in the Talmud Yerushalmi Ta’anit) about people who have led reprehensible lives managing to attain Olam HaBa (The Next World) with a single good deed or moment of repentance, leading Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (the editor of the Mishnah, the oldest layer of the Talmud) that some people can acquire Olam HaBa only after many years of toil, while others can acquire it in an instant (I think I’m in the many years of toil category).  Belief seems to play very little role in these stories, which are focused on kindness and repentance.  I view them through a religious existentialist lens, seeing them as being about repentance, encounters with other people and perhaps with God (which is not the same as straightforward faith) and personal authenticity (an extended analysis of one of these stories can be found here and here).

***

I thought about these thoughts a lot over Shabbat, sometimes in a rather agitated way.  Still, I don’t know if it qualifies as religious OCD.  I felt that it just wasn’t as powerful and obsessive as my religious OCD thoughts usually are.

Still, I feel exhausted now.  I meant to write this blog entry quickly and go and read, but I got involved, said a lot more than I intended and it has taken nearly two hours.  These thoughts have been brewing inside me for weeks, though, so perhaps it is just as well that I got them out of my system.

Cargo Cult

I was thinking about something for my novel, and it turned into a wider thought which is this: there is a danger, probably in any religion, but certainly in Judaism, that it could turn into a Cargo Cult.  This refers to islanders in the Pacific who saw the US armed forces build bases and airstrips in World War II and, magically (it seemed to them), after they built them, big planes would land with boxes of food and supplies.  So after the war, the tribes-people cleared airstrips and built imitation military bases, thinking planes would come and bring them food, but, of course, they didn’t.

So there’s a danger of thinking that “I keep Shabbat, I keep kosher, I pray, I learn Torah therefore I’m a good Jew.”  Whereas Shabbat, kashrut, davening, Torah etc. are preconditions for being a good Jew, they hopefully help send us on the direction to being a good Jew, but they are not the same as being a good Jew.  One needs to have a whole bunch of other emotions and intuitions towards God and towards other human beings: love, awe, compassion, enthusiasm, self-denial, generosity… the things that frum (religious) Jews label as good middot (character traits).  One needs in particular to have the emotional connection with God.

I struggle with this, partly because of alexithymia and not understanding my own emotions very well, partly because perhaps I don’t have such a road map or checklist of things to do, which is not good for my autistic mind.  Autistic mind copes fine with Shabbat, for example.  Shabbat is thirty-nine forbidden (primary) actions not to do and a couple of positive commanded actions to do.  Oneg Shabbat, the delight of Shabbat, is another matter because that’s an emotion.  It comes from keeping the forbidden and commanded actions, but it’s possible to keep all those commands without experiencing it.  As it happens, I usually do experience Oneg Shabbat these days, but there have been times in my life when I didn’t, even though I kept all the Shabbat laws, because Oneg Shabbat is an emotion, and I was not in a good place emotionally, so I had no Oneg Shabbat and Shabbat seemed more of a chore.

There are categories within the halakhah (Jewish law) that delineate these ideas, concepts like naval bereshut haTorah, a vulgar person with the permission of the Torah, meaning someone who acts over-indulgently, but within permitted bounds e.g. gluttonously eating kosher food; or the hassid shoteh, the pious fool, who focuses on the wrong issues in a clash of values, the classic hassid shoteh being a man who won’t save a drowning woman because he doesn’t want to see her in disarranged dress.

It’s something to think about anyway.  I do want to have that kind of emotional connection with God, but I’m not sure how to go about it or if it’s even possible to consciously move towards it.

***

Otherwise it’s been a slightly stressful day with religious OCD.  I’m just trying to tell myself that I’m not responsible for the behaviour of other people; that it’s unlikely that any of the things I’ve seen are a serious breach of religious laws; and that I’m trying to do the right thing and even if I’m making a mistake, it’s a genuine mistake and not a deliberate attempt to break the Pesach laws.  It’s hard though.

Off for another two days of Yom Tov (festival) now…

Defensive and Anxious

I felt really defensive on waking today.  I think it was because I dreamt about one of my secondary school Jewish Studies teachers last night.  He was telling me off because I had come to class without shoes, as I had left them in the P.E. changing room locker.  In reality, this was the teacher who really introduced me to Torah study at a more advanced level, the level of Mishnah and Gemarah (Talmud).  I guess he also made it seem possible to be frum (religious) while still being a ‘normal’ person with a sense of humour.  He was an important person in my journey to becoming frum.

I know I disappointed him and some of the other Jewish Studies teachers by not going to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) after school, although it wasn’t really where I was on my journey of religious growth or personal development when I was eighteen.  I think the dream came about because I assume he would not approve of my relationship with E. either, that he would want me to marry someone more conventionally religious.  Like I said, this left me defensive today.  I could not articulate my reasons for not going to yeshiva when I was eighteen, but I don’t think I would have been ready, realistically, at that age, particularly given what I know now about how I function, or don’t function, in high stress academic environments, social environments, and especially noisy social environments (yeshiva is really noisy, because everyone studies out loud, in pairs, arguing loudly to be heard above everyone else arguing loudly).  I also think that E. is right for me, and that frum people who haven’t had issues with mental illness, high functioning autism and difficulty fitting in socially in the sometimes narrow and conformist frum world shouldn’t judge our relationship.  Ashley Leia asked the other day if the idea of bashert (destiny, especially a destined soul-mate) affects my thinking about E., and really it doesn’t, but inasmuch as I believe in bashert at all, I strongly suspect that E. is my bashert and people who haven’t been through everything I’ve been through in the last twenty years don’t really have a right to judge me for thinking that (cf. Pirkei Avot 2.4: “do not judge your fellow until you have been in his place.”).  Plus, as E. said when I told her about this dream, it’s not fair for people not to support me in the community then turn on me for dating someone from outside it.

Reading the last paragraph back, it seems very defensive.  I guess I feel defensive today, maybe because I feel anxious and depressed.   I’ve never been one to follow fashions and I’ve always been myself privately, but it’s hard to openly break with one’s community.  I do find it hard to be frum socially a lot of the time, even though I am objectively very religious.  I guess being in frum society brings up a lot of fears about where I stand religiously, where I should stand, am I good enough and so on, as well as fears about my relationship with E., what the stresses would be with that and so on.  E. was saying that she’s enjoying a Jewish book I recommended for her, but that its description of how Jewish communities should work does not match her experience of how they do work in reality and she has a point.  I guess I’ve always just tried to get on with my own stuff and not worry about fitting in so much, except that I get lonely and now I feel that I do need to put down roots somewhere where I fit in.

***

As for activity, today I worked on my short story for an hour or so, writing nearly 900 words, which was very good.  I spent half an hour writing my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week.  I stopped when I felt I had run out of energy.  Soon afterwards I started feeling very depressed.  I went for a run (thirty-five minutes, mostly running with little walking), but while I was out I started feeling really anxious.  I wish I was in therapy at the moment; there are so many things that are making me anxious and I can’t tell which ones are legitimate and which aren’t.  I suppose all anxieties are “legitimate” in that it isn’t “wrong” to have an anxiety, but I feel some would worry anyone and others are more pathological and unique to me.  I would like to be able to talk things through with someone objective.  I speak to my rabbi mentor sometimes, and he is a trained counsellor, but I feel like I impose too much on him and it isn’t always easy to find time to talk, plus it’s hard to do it long-distance.

My sister and brother-in-law came around to drop some stuff off and have a socially distanced, two metres away conversation on the doorstep, which was nice, particularly for my parents.

I decided I needed a break from the weekly COVID-19 depression group Zoom meeting.  I just didn’t have the energy and mindset to relate my feelings and listen for long periods to other people’s experiences.  I feel that I’m still recovering from Yom Tov, plus my worries at the moment are mostly religious OCD/Pesach-based rather than COVID-19/lockdown-based.  Perhaps I’ll participate again next week.

It was a reasonable day for Pesach OCD worries.  I feel bad that this year has not gone as well as last year, but that was probably unfeasible, given everything happening to my family and in the wider world.  I’m still better than all the years where I ended up a quivering wreck of anxiety at some point before or during the festival.

Re-framing and Brokenness

I realised I was so busy complaining yesterday that I forgot to mention two bits of good news.  One is that I will be getting Employment and Support Allowance (ESA – benefits, basically) for a year, assuming my employment position doesn’t change, which is something of a relief after all the hassle I went to in order to claim.

The second is a more positive thing that came out of the seder experience.  I can’t remember exactly how it came about, but I realised that I could re-frame the narrative of my life in a more positive way.  It possibly came from something by Rabbi Lord Sacks that I read out at seder about Moshe (Moses) using his speech immediately before the exodus (in Shemot/Exodus 12) to focus on the idea of how to tell the story to our children, which Rabbi Sacks used to talk about the idea of telling our own personal story in a way that supports us.

In the past I have cast the narrative of my life in a very negative way: school, Oxford, my MA, work, dating, religious growth, I have presented all of them in a very negative way, focusing on the difficult times I had and the lack of clear progression to where I wanted my life to be, in terms of marriage, career, community, a certain sort of religious life and so on.

I realise that there were some positives that came out of all of these things.  For example, I tend to present Oxford as the worst time of my life, but I did get my BA in end, with a decent mark, and I made a number of friends that I’m still in contact with fifteen years on.  And it was a worthwhile experience that I learnt from, even if it wasn’t often a happy one.  I won’t bore you by going through the whole list of life events, but I can sort of see that I can do this positive re-framing for most of my life if I try hard enough.

***

I read Giles Fraser’s latest essay on UnHerd (here, but don’t bother to read the comments which are tedious “God does/doesn’t exist” arguments by people who have missed the point of the article…  I already regret wishing that UnHerd had a comments section and they’ve only had it a few weeks).  I find Fraser’s articles interesting and provocative for me, as much of his Christian theology resonates with me, and yet much of it seems utterly alien, from a Jewish point of view.  Usually both at the same time.

The engagement with brokenness and vulnerability in Christianity as opposed to in secular liberalism is something Fraser has written about a lot.  It makes me wonder how much this acceptance is present in Judaism.  One would expect it to be present in Judaism, given how much of Jewish history has been written in tears of exile and persecution, but I’m not sure how much it does appear, at least not on a personal level.  There is Iyov/Job, as Fraser says; there is some of Tehillim/Psalms.  Perhaps you could count Eichah/Lamentations, but that’s really about national brokenness, not individual brokenness.  Which is kind of my point.  Judaism is a lot more about communal or national experiences than private and personal ones.  Unsurprisingly, because Christianity is pitched as an individual quest for personal salvation, whereas Judaism is at heart a national quest to build a social utopia (even if many religious Jews appear to have forgotten that).  That’s why (topically for this time of year) the key event of Christianity is Jesus dying on the cross, whereas the key event in Judaism is a nation of slaves leaving for freedom.

This can make Judaism a difficult source of support for someone dealing with private, personal pain as opposed to communal disaster.  While there are plenty of Christian conversion stories along the lines of, “I was at rock bottom, but I opened the Bible/heard a preacher/accepted Jesus into my life and suddenly felt loved and accepted,” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a religious Jew offer a parallel story using Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) or the Talmud, nor have I ever come across kiruv organisation (outreach organisations attempting to make non-religious Jews more religious) using such tactics.  Kiruv organisations prefer a mixture of intellectual engagement with supposed proofs of the truth of Judaism, which are really a pretext to encourage people to experience celebrating Shabbat or going to Israel, particularly in a group.

(The reverse is true: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Christian parallel to the outpouring of concern and love that Jews of all stripes and religious levels share when there is war or terrorism in Israel or antisemitism in the diaspora; many Western Christians seem utterly unaware of the persecution of their coreligionists in much of the Middle East, let alone upset by it, something that is simply unthinkable for the global Jewish community.)

I’m not familiar enough with the rabbinic literature, the Talmud and the Midrash, to know if there are many more stories of individual brokenness there.  I can think of one or two.  This one comes to mind (Talmud Brachot 5b, translation from the Steinsaltz edition via Sefaria – the bold text is direct translation of the original, the non-bold text is explanation):

The Gemara relates that Rabbi Elazar, another of Rabbi Yoḥanan’s students, fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan entered to visit him, and saw that he was lying in a dark room. Rabbi Yoḥanan exposed his arm, and light radiated from his flesh, filling the house. He saw that Rabbi Elazar was crying, and said to him: Why are you crying? Thinking that his crying was over the suffering that he endured throughout his life, Rabbi Yoḥanan attempted to comfort him: If you are weeping because you did not study as much Torah as you would have liked, we learned: One who brings a substantial sacrifice and one who brings a meager sacrifice have equal merit, as long as he directs his heart toward Heaven. If you are weeping because you lack sustenance and are unable to earn a livelihood, as Rabbi Elazar was, indeed, quite poor, not every person merits to eat off of two tables, one of wealth and one of Torah, so you need not bemoan the fact that you are not wealthy. If you are crying over children who have died, this is the bone of my tenth son, and suffering of that kind afflicts great people, and they are afflictions of love.

Rabbi Elazar said to Rabbi Yoḥanan: I am not crying over my misfortune, but rather, over this beauty of yours that will decompose in the earth, as Rabbi Yoḥanan’s beauty caused him to consider human mortality. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Over this, it is certainly appropriate to weep. Both cried over the fleeting nature of beauty in the world and death that eventually overcomes all.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Elazar said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. Upon hearing this, Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Elazar gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yoḥanan stood him up and restored him to health.

Still, these type of stories do seem to be the relatively rare in Judaism and I do feel like I struggle for inspiration and guidance on how to connect with God through my suffering and depression.  I think that’s why I’ve re-read Arthur Green’s biography of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav three times, because it deals extensively with his bouts of despair and self-criticism (possibly the result of bipolar disorder, undiagnosable and untreatable in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries).  Rebbe Nachman’s own stories are also important to me; they also deal a lot with longing and spiritual desire.  Still, I would be interested in finding more sources of Jewish inspiration and acceptance of brokenness.

***

As for my day today, I did half an hour of Torah study and went for a half-hour walk.  E. and I tried to do a virtual museum tour as an online date, but the picture resolution was poor, as was the navigation, and there wasn’t any text to explain what we were seeing.  We found the experience disappointing and switched to a straightforward video date after a while.  We spoke for over an hour and a half.

I found I was exhausted this evening, I think from the emotional stress of the last three days more than from my activity today.  I would have liked to have done more Torah study, or to have written my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week or to have worked on my short story, but I’m just too exhausted.  I’m also intermittently anxious (OCD anxiety mainly, although some general anxiety) and depressed; anxiety and depression tend to worsen when I’m tired, as at the moment.  I am going to turn off my computer and watch TV and read before bed, because I don’t feel I can do anything else, sadly.  I’m just trying to stay afloat and not end up too exhausted and depressed tomorrow.

***

A question that is bothering me, but which I’m reluctant to ask more widely for fear of being misunderstood: what is the additional number of COVID-19 deaths?  Because while over 100,000 people have died globally, a proportion of those, statistically speaking, would have died anyway from something.  The people most likely to die from COVID-19 are also largely the people most likely to die in general (elderly, seriously ill, having compromised immune systems etc.).  I would like to know what is the number of deaths so far over and above what we would expect for a normal first quarter of a year?  I am not trying to be callous or to say that it doesn’t matter that they died as they would have died anyway.  Obviously any death is a tragedy.  I’m just curious to know what the global scale of COVID-19 is likely to be.  Are we talking thousands more deaths, hundreds of thousands or (God forbid) millions?  How does that compare with normal mortality rates?

I heard that when the ebola virus was at its worst in Africa, there was a sudden increase in deaths from malaria, because resources that would have been used in the fight against malaria were diverted to fight ebola, because it’s a “scarier” (or perhaps just less common) illness.  I am wondering if anything like that could happen here.

I think they are legitimate questions, but I’m afraid they make me sound callous and uncaring.  The autistic part of me has learnt that some genuine questions are off-putting emotionally to many people, however intellectually justified, just as the politically aware part of me is aware that people with strong political opinions generally see the world through the lens of their opinions and don’t always like questions that probe that too deeply or challenge their core assumptions.

***

The annoying computer problem I used to have, where the mouse touchpad would default to tapping mode whenever I turned the computer on and it would last until I went to turn it off, whereupon it would switch off before I got to the screen where I should have been able to turn it off, is back.  I’m not sure what to do about that.  It’s another step in the protracted decline of my laptop, but I’m hoping to, um, protract it some more as I can’t really afford to buy a new computer right now.  If anyone knows how to deal with this, please let me know!

Post-Yom Tov Post

I’m breaking with my usual post-Yom Tov (festival) habit of trying to catch up on blogs and stuff in the hope of getting to bed before 2am.  For the same reason, this is going to be more of a summary of the last three days than a blow-by-blow account.

The shortest version is that the first two days (Yom Tov proper) where an emotional rollercoaster, but I was broadly coping, but Shabbat (the Sabbath) was just too much and I was not good.  To be honest, three day Yom Tovs, or “Three Day Events” as my parents call them, are pretty draining for everyone even without COVID-19 disruption and without depression and OCD.

As for the more detailed version… well, the first two days I was up and down.  At times I was worried or depressed about some things, but mostly I was able to calm myself by reminding myself that my rabbi mentor told me not to worry about chametz (leaven food, forbidden on Pesach) smaller than an olive (although I know he is being lenient with me here, so it doesn’t always help) and by reminding myself that I’m not responsible for what my parents choose to do.  I think there was probably in the background the usual current worries: worries about my Mum, her cancer, and her risk of COVID-19 infection; worries about COVID-19 in general; worries about E.; worries about my relationship with E. (which is going well, I hasten to add, but is at a crossroads, which is exciting but also scary, or was at a crossroads until COVID-19 put our plans on a back burner).  And so on.

The sederim went quite well, considering there were just three of us, although it felt a bit weird.  Usually we would have about ten or so people in total one night; the other would be me, my parents, my sister and my brother-in-law.  This year it was just three of us both nights (“Why is this night so different?”).  We did have some more discussion than usual, which gives me an idea of how to do things differently in the future.  I had a migraine on the afternoon of the first day, but it had subsided by the second seder, which was good.  I still struggled to learn anything new at the seder, and to connect emotionally with the ideas of the night.  I still end up over-thinking things and not feeling them.  I wish I could get more out of seder, and out of Judaism in general.  The only real feeling of connection I had was via guilt and anxiety when I did something wrong (see below).

One interesting thing while I was eating the matzah (unleavened bread) was a strong feeling that freedom is being able to “just go,” which obviously connects with the story of the matzah in the Torah, that the Israelites did not have time to bake bread before leaving slavery in Egypt, but is interesting in terms of my usual procrastination and my awareness that my relationship with E. is going to require quite a bit of risk-taking and adventurous departures if it’s going to work.

I made some mistakes, in terms of forgetting to do a few things.  Most of them were rectifiable, but in opening some celery I had forgotten to open before Yom Tov I tore some writing on the packaging, a big no-no on Shabbat and Yom Tov (it’s considered erasing).  I felt very upset about this, and then managed to do it again the next day on something else (that was less obviously my fault though).  As I say, I felt upset, but I did manage to move on.

And then we got to Shabbat…  It was going well, and then there was an Issue.  There was an oversight in the kitchen (I won’t go into the details which are fairly complex) and potentially we had messed up the Pesach kosher-ness of some food.  I was 80% sure it was OK, but still couldn’t bring myself to eat it.  I didn’t argue with my parents, but they did eat it, and put it on our plates, which meant that the plates were now potentially problematic.  I tried to stay calm, but it was hard to do that with all the worries I mentioned above in my head plus the minor Pesach worries and now plus this.  I tried not to eat anything potentially ‘contaminated’ for the rest of the day, but it was hard to keep track of what cutlery had gone where and by lunchtime on Saturday I was de facto relying on my opinion that the food was OK (which at least had now grown to 90% certainty).

After Shabbat we emailed my parents’ rabbi and he said what I had thought: it was OK, we had just infringed a protective measure intended as an extra level of safety.  But it’s hard to spend Pesach every year wrestling with feelings that God is going to deny me any reward in the afterlife because of confused and panicked decisions I take at Pesach, especially as those are motivated more by a desire to avoid arguing with my parents than some selfish desire to eat chametz on Pesach.  I thought I was past this stage, but apparently not, or at least, not in this crazy year.

It’s hard to treat OCD at a time of the year when we are supposed to be worried about what we eat.  I suppose the analogy would be to someone who had germ contamination OCD and was trying to treat it with exposure therapy, but now has to deal with COVID-19 and suddenly being told to wash her hands all the time.

I also ate a load of junk over the three days and little fruit and veg, again because of a complicated religious/not-arguing-with-parents reason (I usually eat a lot of fruit and veg).  On the plus side, my biscuits tasted good, despite the cinnamon balls turning into macaroon shape and the almond macaroons ending up as a solid block that my Mum had to hack into smaller chunks.

Other than that it was the usual Yom Tov mix of over-eating, oversleeping, praying and reading.  My parents more or less forced me to go for a half-hour walk each day, which I needed.  I worked through a couple more Tehillim/Psalms in Hebrew and read more of Ani Maamin as well as more than half of a murder mystery set in a Haredi community, the first in a long sequence.  I’m enjoying it enough to stick with it to see how it ends, but I’m not sure if I’ll be reading any more.  It’s not really as interesting as I thought it would be, maybe because the Haredi community doesn’t seem so exotic; if anything, it seems less strict than my own community, which probably wasn’t the intention.

***

I should really go to bed.  I’m already violating my “No screens after 11pm” rule just to write this, but I’ve been struggling for the last few days with trying to keep going without being able to off-load.  I feel like I need to watch some TV to unwind.  I know it might keep me awake, but not relaxing will also keep me awake and I don’t really feel like reading any more.

Golden Ages

I’ve mentioned before my feeling that the “J-blogosphere” (the Jewish blogosphere) that I used to be a part of has declined in recent years.  Yesterday I came across this list of the “Top 50 Jewish Blogs and Websites to Follow in 2020”.  I was surprised that a lot of them are institutional rather than personal blogs, and many of the private blogs are defunct.  I don’t want to read too much into this, as I don’t know how the list was compiled and I think it’s just another online list, but it does reinforce my feeling that the thriving J-blogosphere that I was a part of (or at least, slightly more than a spectator to) ten or fifteen years ago has gone somewhere else, but I’m not sure where exactly.  Probably Facebook and Twitter.  It’s strange that I mourn it now, as I never really felt that I fitted in to it, but I miss particular blogs and feel a sort of wistful regret that I could express my Jewish identity online, and to talk with people whose Jewish identity, however defined (Orthodox, Reform, secular, Israeli, diaspora etc.) was more instinctive and natural than my own.  I don’t think I really appreciated that when it was available.

It occurs to me that I tend to get nostalgic for communities that I was never really a part of.  I participated in the J-blogosphere, but while I commented on some blogs and read others, few (no?) Jewish bloggers read my blog, so far as I could tell.  Similarly, I can get hugely nostalgic for the Doctor Who fandom of the “wilderness years” when the programme was not on air (1990-2004) and when fandom was a kind of club for people who found Mensa insufficiently geeky and obscure, mixing quasi-academic analysis with juvenile humour, yet my active involvement in fandom was limited both in scope and in time.

I don’t really know why this is the case.  Perhaps it’s easy, when looking at my current struggles with socialising, to look back to a “golden age,” but I don’t think there ever was one for me.  There were social groupings that I wanted to join, but I never really managed to infiltrate them (not really the right word, but in many ways exactly the right word).  But, as the Doctor said (Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs), there never was a golden age; it’s all an illusion.  Perhaps I should take that as my starting point when trying to make friends.  I am at least slowly making friends and getting known in my shul (synagogue), or was before coronavirus hit, albeit possibly just in time to move somewhere else with E.

Perhaps it’s related to my tendency to avoid categorising my religious, political and cultural opinions, to always opt for the “Yes/And” rather than the “Either/Or.”  To see myself as someone who doesn’t fit into convenient boxes, but rather who unites opposed points of view.  It’s a sense that I’m too big for anyone else’s categories, which is probably self-aggrandising, on some level, as well as providing an overly-convenient explanation for my failure to make friends (“They don’t understand my complexity!”).

***

Good news for the day: my oldest friend got in touch to say he’s read my non-fiction Doctor Who book and really enjoyed it.  He even paid me the biggest compliment you can pay a writer: he stayed up later than intended because he couldn’t put it down!  I feel really pleased about this.  I may ask him to write a review on Amazon or Lulu although he must be incredibly busy at the moment (he’s a rabbi).  Of course, my negative thoughts are already trying to discount his praise…

(This also means that I’ve sold at least one copy more than I thought, and than Lulu.com’s tally suggests.  Possibly Amazon sales take time to register?)

***

I actually got up early today.  Well, earlyish, for a Sunday, when I hadn’t slept well.  I got up just after 10am.  Considering I’ve been getting up around midday for weeks, this is an improvement.  I hadn’t even slept well.  I shouldn’t have watched Life on Mars late last night, as the blue light stopped me sleeping.  I just felt I needed to relax, but I should have read, or rather should have just read, as I read too.  I did eventually fall asleep, but woke just before 10am from a nightmare where my “Dad” (in inverted commas, as it wasn’t my real Dad, but some violent thug) was fighting with me.  I didn’t want to go back to sleep after that.  Maybe I need to have a nightmare every day.

Unfortunately it did take me a while to get going.  I felt tired and got distracted online.  Once I got going, the day was mostly taken up with Pesach (Passover) preparation: cleaning fridges and freezers and cleaning the hob.  I got very tired by the late afternoon.  It’s a continual source of frustration to me that I can only do much less work in a day than most people, because of lack of energy and depressive procrastination.  I would have liked to have done a whole day’s work today rather than just an afternoon’s.  Still, I did manage to go for a decent run in the twilight for about half an hour and had a Skype call with E. that was very enjoyable.  I think I laughed more with E. than I have since the coronavirus hit.

I felt less anxious about Pesach preparations today and more able to keep things in perspective and resist the religious OCD.  What the logic of the Jewish dietary laws, and the special Pesach dietary laws, might be is a subject of debate and from the outside I imagine that they don’t seem to have much logic at all.  Nevertheless, there is an internal logic to how it all works, an understanding of how food or its taste might be passed on that holds true across all the Jewish dietary laws.  As I understand this better, it becomes less a vague and fear-inspiring superstition (“I think that’s wrong, but I don’t know why”) and more something I can assess and analyse for myself and decide if it’s a problem without asking a rabbi.  I still have a long way to go, but I am getting better at this.

One thing I’ve learnt to look out for with OCD (I think it probably applies to any OCD with compulsions) is doing things multiple times.  The mindset of, “I think I’ve done this, but I’ll do it again to be sure” or simply “I must do this X number of times” with no clear explanation.  I fell into that a little bit today while cleaning, cleaning things multiple times, but I have become wary of it.  Similarly, I need to avoid checking things: asking questions of a rabbi when I know the answer or looking through old emails where I’ve asked questions to check the existing answer.  It’s very hard though.  Really the difficulty of OCD is resisting this desire to check things, whether it’s locking doors and windows, or washing hands repeatedly or checking about ritual performance.

The Seeking is the Finding

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was fairly normal, at least according to the new normal (no shul (synagogue)).  I finished the Doctor Who book I was re-reading, The Scales of Injustice.  It was better than I remembered, but I think the open-ended ending annoyed me when I first read it as a teenager.  I think there were semi-sequels that continued the story, but I don’t feel particularly motivated to seek them out.  It has to be said that I’m not entirely sure what the point of the story was.  I’m slightly scared to elaborate though.  From being someone who used to be quite willing to review things online, including (what I felt were) justified negative reviews, I’ve become reluctant now I realise that it could be my work being reviewed.  I know other frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) people who will only write positive reviews for fear that negative ones contravene Jewish law about gossip and negative speech.  I was not convinced by that argument in the past, but now I wonder about it, worried that one day all the negative things I’ve said will crash back on my head in bad reviews of my writing.

Mind you, part of me would be glad of negative reviews if it meant people were buying my book.  So far sales of my self-published book are stagnant.  I’ve sold six copies, two to myself (one a proof copy and one to send to Doctor Who Magazine when things are more normal as a review copy), one to my parents, one to E. and two to fan friends.  I need to publicise it better, but am not sure how especially as I won’t link to it here, as it’s published under my real name.  WordPress won’t let me back into my Doctor Who blog which is the logical place to publicise it.  I’m not good at publicity and marketing anyway.  Someone said I should set up a Facebook page for the book, but I’m not sure what good that would do, given that I don’t have a personal Facebook account and have no intention of going back into that bear pit just to sell a few more copies of my book.

***

In terms of Jewish stuff, I read some more of Ani Ma’amin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth and the Thirteen Principles of Faith by Rabbi Joshua Berman.  There was some interesting stuff about the improbably large numbers of Israelites in the exodus from Egypt and what those numbers might really be signifying.

***

I know I say here I struggle being Jewish in some ways.  Not so much through doubts as lacking inspiration and connection.  Judaism is important to me, but depression just wipes out my passion and enthusiasm and social anxiety gets rid of anything that’s left.  I see people at my shul (when we were allowed to go to it) who seemed to really connect to God in prayer or Torah study and I can’t do that, at least not for long.  It’s possible other people are faking it, on some level, but I’m not cynical enough to believe that everyone is faking it all the time.

I thought about a passage in the Talmud that says (I’m quoting from memory) if someone tells you they have sought and not found, don’t believe them; if someone tells you they have not sought, but have found, don’t believe them; but if someone tells you they have sought and found, believe them.  I’m not going to discuss the first two clauses, but on the third one, the Kotzker Rebbe said, many centuries later, “The seeking is the finding.”

I was thinking about this and that it does seem to apply to me, that I’m more conscious of the existence of God when I feel very far from Him.  It’s pretty much in the tradition of religious existentialism, which I’ve mentioned in the past that I used to be quite into.  I read it a lot less nowadays, but it still influences my worldview, and I feel that’s what is happening here.  I just feel so far from God so much of the time, yet when I feel consciously very far from Him, I feel on some level connected, whereas a lot of the time I’m not even thinking about Him.

There definitely is something to be said here about being able to feel things rather than just thinking them, but I’m not sure I really have the vocabulary to say it.  Judaism is a very intellectual religion, but I increasingly feel that I can’t cope with pure intellect and need to engage better emotionally, but I don’t know how.

Feedback Loop

Yesterday finished badly.  I went to bed earlier than usual (although still late) because I felt tired and depressed.  I tried to do my hitbodedut meditation/prayer/talking to God, but got overwhelmed with guilt, anxiety and despair halfway through and had to stop.  At least I was feeling something, lately it’s been hard to feel anything while doing it.

Then today started badly.  It was a real struggle to get up.  I woke up around 10am, but fell asleep again.  I eventually got up around 12.30pm, after an indeterminate amount of time lying in bed feeling awful, just depressed and exhausted.  I’ve been having weird dreams recently too.  There was one that involved Hitler’s head (in a They Saved Hitler’s Brain sort of way, but I don’t remember the details), and last night I dreamt about people from shul (synagogue) coming round, but just sitting in the lounge silently studying Talmud.  In the dream, this seemed like a success, as they seemed to think I was on some level capable of Talmud study.  There was also a ten year old boy who I managed to speak to in Hebrew, at least to offer him a drink.  I’m not sure what any of this means.

Events today were mostly trivial, but also somewhat frustrating or upsetting.  I’ve put on weight, about 1kg since I last weighed myself.  It’s not surprising, as I’ve only had time/energy to exercise intermittently and have been eating more junk than usual since the coronavirus lockdown started.

Then the latest Doctor Who Magazine arrived.  They didn’t print the letter I had sent them, which isn’t a surprise as I admitted to not enjoying the most recent series.  They don’t print negative letters any more, even one like mine which basically argued that Doctor Who is large and diverse and if some fans don’t like the current version, they can just focus on what they like and not throw their toys out of the pram on Twitter.

Writing this down, it doesn’t seem like so much, but I felt very overwhelmed and really just wanted to go back to bed and start the day again.

I didn’t have much to do today, in terms of Pesach preparation or anything else, so I wrote my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week, which ended up being quite a bit shorter than usual, from lack of inspiration as much as depression.  This week’s sedra (Torah portion) has some long legal passages about the sacrificial laws and a description of the inauguration ceremony of the priests, which had been previewed a view weeks ago in Shemot (Exodus), so it can be hard to find something interesting and relevant to a contemporary audience.

I went for a run, but as I was too depressed and exhausted to run for more than a few metres at a time, it was mostly a walk.  I passed a bunch of six teenagers, split up on both sides of the road so I couldn’t safely pass while keeping two metres distant from both groups.  I think this is the first really flagrant lockdown breach I’ve seen.  My uncle says that the Israeli lockdown is stricter, with people limited to a 100m radius area around their residence and police and army enforcement.

I’m struggling with religious OCD, in some ways more so than yesterday, wanting to email my rabbi mentor to chase up the answers to yesterday’s questions.  I did email in the end, and although I turned it into a general venting email, it really was to seek reassurance, which I know is wrong with OCD.  It is hard to do exposure therapy for Pesach OCD when exposure therapy requires repeated exposures over time and Pesach is only one week a year, plus a week or two of preparation beforehand.

Despite being at home with my parents, I felt lonely today.  I don’t always find it easy to communicate with my parents when I feel very depressed (or even when I don’t feel depressed).  I felt alone.  In the evening I actually did some social (or virtual-social) stuff: a massive thirteen person extended family Zoom call (which was basically certain family members shouting a lot and others of us sitting quietly) and a Skype call with E.  I was glad to speak to E., but I just had a knot of anxiety in my stomach the whole time and worried I was going to alienate her somehow, even though I knew this was irrational and that E. cares about me a lot.  I think at times like this my anxiety just transfers from subject to subject depending on what I’m doing at the time so that I always feel anxious.  I did speak a bit to my parents about my anxieties in the end, which was good.  I’m lucky to have them, and to have E.  I don’t know where I would be without them.

***

There was an interesting discussion today over on Ashley Leia’s blog about whether the term “high functioning” is a useful descriptor for mental health.  I would say not, and most if not all commenters there agreed.  Certainly in my case functionality is not static and binary, but fluctuates with time, with different situations and with other factors like tiredness and hunger, as well as the interaction of different aspects of my issues (so today high anxiety/religious OCD anxiety and depression are feeding back into each other and making things worse).  The same goes for my high-functioning autism.

There can also be a judgmental element to functionality, where high functional people are not allowed to have bad days/episodes or are not given adequate support because it’s assumed they are coping and that high functionality equates to mental stability and consistently positive mental health.  I function well inasmuch as I get dressed every day, look after my health and hygiene needs, eat reasonably healthily, exercise, look for work and so on, but whenever I get a job, my stress levels rocket up and I’ve had trouble meeting all my work obligations; I think at least two previous managers thought I was incompetent and probably regretted hiring me.  I don’t know if I’ll ever manage to work full-time.  So it’s hard to see myself as functional, even though I know that I am compared to some people, or even compared with myself as I was from circa 2003 to 2009 or so.

Community and Outsiders (My Frum Dating History)

I ended up with a copy of the magazine for the umbrella organisation that my shul is part of.  It got pushed through our door, as it usually does; I’m not sure if it’s targeted at me or they just distribute it widely around here to try to drum up trade.  There was an article that really made clear to me why I haven’t been able to adapt to my moderate Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) shul fully and especially why I failed to find a partner in that community.

The article was about the circumstances in which you can reveal negative information about someone else to a third party they are dating, according to the laws prohibiting gossip except in case of significant danger to another.  Apparently you can only do it if the person (a) has an illness, disability or fertility issue that they haven’t disclosed (and this includes if several people in their family have had the same genetic disease, even if they have no symptoms of it; (b) if they have heretical ideas or have significantly broken Jewish law; and (c) if they are “immoral.”  This was left tantalisingly vague, probably deliberately.  There are some Jewish communities where a man saying hello to his sister’s best friend in the street would be seen as hugely provocative and immoral.

I had two thoughts about this.  One, while people should disclose illness and disability to their potential life-partner, and while someone in a religious community intent on marrying someone within that community, but who is also contemplating leaving that community should disclose that to that potential life-partner too, nobody else other than the two people dating really has any business getting involved in either of those situations.  As for the “immorality” situation, that’s hugely more complex, not least because of the way the definition of “immorality” can vary from community to community and person to person (“I think you should know that I saw your male date say “hello” to a woman in the street!”), but I’m not really sure that there’s even a requirement for the people dating to admit to this unless they think it’s likely to have an impact on their future life together somehow (basing myself on something Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz said here as well as something my rabbi mentor said – although don’t take my thoughts as psak (a Jewish legal ruling)).

The other thought was realising why I was never realistically going to get married in this community.  When I joined the community, I was aware it was less modern than my theological outlook, but also that it had many advantages in terms of passion for prayer and Torah study and friendliness, which are not always present in other communities.  I think if I had been set up with someone from the community or a similar community and married her, I would have integrated into the community, especially if my wife was more attuned to the standards of the community or was more of a “normal” Haredi maidel (young woman).

That didn’t happen, though, and I think it’s clear why: my mental health issues would have pushed me to the bottom of the pile (I had one date dump me as soon as she found out about my depression, and she was a healthcare professional!), my bookshelves groan with dubious literature (from a Haredi point of view), both fiction and non-fiction, I never went to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) and I have a number of female friends (mostly online, but one or two in person), which would be seen as extremely suspect if it was widely known.

I don’t bring this up to berate my lack of a community that really suits me.  I’ve done that before, and it’s frustrating, but I don’t see the need to go over it again, especially as I’m dating E. now and I’m a bit more hopeful that we will one day find a more modern community that suits us both (more likely in the USA than here).

My point is rather about community in general.  I’ve come to realise that the closeness of traditional religious communities, the kindnesses and support, is, on some level, not despite, but because of the judgemental attitudes, nosiness, ostracising of nonconformity and negative views of outsiders.  It is because the boundaries between ‘in’ and ‘out’ are policed so effectively and, sometimes, brutally, that people feel that they can trust the other members of the community, that they have all passed a rigorous test in being Our Sort of Person.  That’s why there are Haredi communities where people trust their rabbis more than the doctors and governmental health officers regarding how to respond to coronavirus (not my community, I hasten to add). I’m not the type of person who can easily pass tests like that, though, in any sort of community.  I like to investigate different ways of thinking and explore different attitudes, and I exist too much on the dividing line between ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ rather than on one side or the other.

It’s worth reflecting on as, while I don’t want to talk about politics here, I feel that the extreme individualism that has characterised British and American society since the sixties, and especially since the eighties, is drawing to an end, and some kind of more communitarian outlook is likely.  That’s probably a good thing, but it does make me wonder who is going to decide who gets to police the boundaries and according to what criteria e.g. trial by Twitter, which is the secular equivalent of this sort of boundary policing.

***

I had was a restful Shabbat (Sabbath).  No illegal minyan (prayer quorum) next-door.  It could have been a pre-coronavirus Shabbat if it weren’t for the absence of shul (synagogue).  I read quite a bit.  I didn’t have insomnia on Friday night, but I did wake up around 4.30am and couldn’t get back to sleep until around 6.00am.  I started reading Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith by Rabbi Joshua Berman, the book I bought when I heard Rabbi Berman speak a month or two ago.  I’m also reading another Doctor Who novel and a short book on the Russian Revolution, but after I finish I think I’m going to stick to light fiction rather than serious fiction or non-fiction until the health crisis is over (not counting Jewish reading/Torah study).  I’m too stressed for heavy recreational reading.