Dancers at the End of Yom Tov

The end of Yom Tov (festivals) went OK overall.  On Shimini Atzeret evening (Sunday night) I was feeling quite exhilarated about the thought of trying to write a weekly devar Torah (short Torah essay) again.  From feeling zero connection to what I have been “learning” (much as I dislike the Yeshivish word, “studying” doesn’t seem right in this context), suddenly I was finding, if not answers, then at least kashas (questions, textual difficulties) to pursue.  On Shimini Atzeret day I crashed a bit, perhaps unsurprisingly.  I had gone to bed really late because I was a bit agitated in a positive way (the kind of feeling that once had me wondering if I had bipolar disorder instead of unipolar depression, but apparently it’s not mania), but, as often happens, I crashed afterwards.  I struggled to get up again on Monday morning.

I went to shul (synagogue) in the evening, but was very anxious that I wouldn’t be able to slip away before the Simchat Torah festivities started.  I find Simchat Torah very hard.  We celebrate finishing and restarting the annual Torah reading by dancing with the Torah scrolls.  This is circle dancing, holding hands and going round and round.  I’ve never worked out why it makes me so uncomfortable, whether it’s depression (the party atmosphere), social anxiety (being visible to everyone), lack of confidence (not feeling able to dance) or autism (the noise and close proximity to people I don’t know well).  This is aside from my shul auctioning Simchat Torah honours in return for committing to study Torah in the coming year, which makes me feel bad for not being able to commit to anything, let alone the immense amount some people commit to.  Whatever reason, I find the day hard.  There were one or two years where I did manage to enter into the spirit of things and dance, but that was in a shul where I felt quite comfortable for reasons that are not likely to replicate themselves any time soon.  Usually I slip away before the dancing starts, but I feel bad about not even trying to dance.  On my way out, someone asked if I was going and I said yes and felt bad, but I don’t know how else to cope.  I’d like to enjoy Simchat Torah one day, but I don’t know how.

I came home to find my parents home.  I had expected Dad and maybe Mum to be at their own shul and I did a typical autistic thing of being completely put out by a minor change of plan and ended up arguing over my Dad about some petty thing.  Really we weren’t arguing about that, I was expressing my anger and frustration with myself for not being able to stay in shul and he was expressing his frustration that he can’t solve my problems.

I did manage to have dinner with my parents, slept for twelve hours or more and woke up feeling better than expected.  I missed shul during the day, but went back for Ma’ariv (the Evening Service).  We were waiting for a minyan (prayer quorum) and, as it was the closing minutes of Simchat Torah and the Tishrei holiday period, the rabbi started singing and dancing (this is what happens if you have a somewhat Hasidishe rabbi) and I allowed myself to get dragged into that even though it felt a little uncomfortable, so I did just about dance a bit on Simchat Torah.  I then helped take down the shul sukkahs and to take two of the Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) back to our weekday premises.  So I felt I did my bit to help, but I also felt a bit as if I was tidying up from a really great party that I had mostly missed, which seems a bit like the story of my life.

I helped my Dad begin to take down our sukkah too.  At least I felt that I had enjoyed using that one more.

***

On balance, I would have to say that it was a good Sukkot, and a good Tishrei generally.  I got to shul in the morning several times as well as the evenings.  I heard the shofar both days on Rosh Hashanah, I wasn’t too ill on Yom Kippur (although I did spend much of the day too drained to get out of bed) and, despite it being mid-October and expected to be wet, we had almost every lunch and dinner in the sukkah over Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret.  I just wish I could finish things more positively on Simchat Torah, and that I didn’t feel like I was so unfocused in my religious life, like I could/should be doing more in terms of davening (praying) with a minyan and with kavannah (mindfulness) as well as doing more, and deeper, Torah study.  It can be hard to see where I am growing, which is the point of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as to see where my joy in being Jewish comes from, which is the point of Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.

I noticed on the way home that someone down the road has their Christmas lights up already.  It somehow seems wrong that the Christians are putting up their Christmas lights before the Jews have finished taking their sukkot down.  There’s still two months before Christmas!  That’s like putting up your sukkah soon after Tisha B’Av!

***

A side-light on this (not Christmas decorations, I mean on religious focus): looking in Leaping Souls: Rabbi Menachem Mendel and the Spirit of Kotzk by Chaim Feinberg there is a story of a Hasid who came to the Kotzker Rebbe and complained that since coming to Kotzk, he has become fearful that his prayers and Torah study are blemished by secret self-interest and imperfections.  He is told by the Rebbe that maybe God doesn’t want his prayers or Torah study, but his heartfelt inner anguish and dissatisfaction with himself, his desire to be a better person (God wants the heart, according to the Talmud although that’s not quoted here).  I’ve heard similar stories with a number of Hasidic Rebbes.  I’m not sure if they’re reassuring or not.  It’s reassuring to think there might be a positive reason for feeling like this, but not reassuring to think I might feel like this for the rest of my life.

It’s not, I suppose, an attitude that would attract many modern people, who seem to like to be told that the religious life, done right, is easy and comfortable and that God can be your best friend who will help you out of any trouble if you just Believe.  I can’t imagine Aish or the JLE or any other kiruv organisation trying to win non-religious Jews to the religious life by telling them that God wants their inner anguish as they struggle to do the right thing, or even just to work out what the right thing is.  It speaks to me, though.  It speaks to the part of me that thinks that life is hard and if there is an all-powerful, benevolent God, then for some reason He doesn’t want us to be happy here, in which case this world is a vale of soul-making (as the thoroughly atheist John Keats put it), not one of happiness.  I can cope with soul-making.  It’s when people tell me that if only I was frum (religious) I would be happy that I get angry, because either I’m not doing religion properly or this is just untrue.  But a world of soul-making, where my inner anguish builds my soul into something beautiful… I can cope with that philosophically.  It is hard to live it every day, though.

***

After my Jewish existentialism post E. asked if I could recommend any books.  I did, but I hadn’t looked at the books for years and now I’m wondering how relevant they are.  This happens a lot when people ask me for advice, I end up panicking and second-guessing myself.  I’m not sure what exactly I’m catastrophising about there.  I’m not sure what the worst case scenario is that I’m worried about.

***

Speaking of books, I find myself doing an impression of Buridan’s Ass again, only with books instead of straw.  Buridan’s Ass is a thought experiment about a hungry donkey placed equidistantly between two identical piles of hay; unable to determine which haystack is “better,” he stands procrastinating between the two until he starves to death.  I find this unlikely, but I can’t choose what book to read out of my many unread novels, unread non-fiction books, novels to re-read, non-fiction books to re-read, and Doctor Who novels to re-read (which seem to be in a separate category, although I’m not quite sure why).  I could look on my Goodreads page to find the numbers to go with each category, but I’m a bit scared of how large they would be.  I have a lot of unread books; well, I have a lot of books period, and a proportion are going to be unread and, given that I’m a re-reader, lots of read books can revert to being quasi-unread (un-re-read) given time.

It doesn’t help that I can’t work out whether I could really get a lot out of re-reading heavy stuff Dickens or Dostoevsky or reading serious non-fiction at the moment, mental health-wise.  I don’t feel like reading much other than Agatha Christie, John le Carré and Doctor Who, but I’m not sure that that proves a lot.  I have an unread Philip K. Dick short story collection that I got for my birthday some months ago, one of my favourite authors, but somehow I can’t feel enthusiastic for a short story collection right now, the thought of keep having to start again rather than immersing myself in a world for a while…  I was in shul for the reading of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) on Shabbat, which concludes that “of making many books there is no end and much study is a weariness of flesh” which is probably a lesson to me, although I’m not quite sure what.  Probably that I should stop writing and go to bed.

Maror Fressers

Unusually, I woke early and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I got up.  I didn’t get much of an early start on the day, as I frittered away some time listening to podcasts on politics and antisemitism as well as trying to get rid of emails.  I use a free email site for Oxford graduates, but really they intend you to move quickly from the free site to a paid upgrade.  I’m reluctant to do this, but I am fast running out of free space now my email folders are filling up with work- and job hunting-related emails, sometimes with huge attachments.  (It’s telling that it’s taken me fourteen years to get to this stage, whereas their business model presumably expects most people to get to it within a year or so of graduation.)  I am not quite sure what to do about this.  I have a free gmail account with a lot of free space which is associated with my other (non-anonymous) blog, but I know if I switch accounts, some of my friends will miss the email telling them to update their address books.  Then there is the hassle of changing my details on internet shopping sites and the like (I could lose some spam, though).

This was all procrastination as I knew I had to set up some online accounts to try to get some freelance proofreading/copy editing work.  I started to do that, but then I started getting anxious, worrying that I didn’t know the proper procedures for proofreading and would mess it up, not being sure what to put on my profile, worrying I wouldn’t get any work because I have no experience or positive reviews…  I wasn’t hugely anxious, but it was a struggle to work on my profile page.  It turned into a struggle between hope and anxiety/procrastination.  I did email a friend who proofreads to ask for help, although I felt very stupid.  Suddenly I felt like I didn’t have a clue what proofreaders and copy editors do, beyond the most general outline.

I could feel the worries spiralling out like fractals in a way that I am familiar with from my OCD, where each answer leads to another three questions.  Being autistic and fearing the unknown probably didn’t help either; I wanted to know and prepare for every eventuality.  Soon I was drifting into self-critical thoughts, thinking that I’m not good at anything, I’m not going to be able to get a job, even that no one really likes me, feeling incompetent and unskilled compared to other people advertising proofreading and copy editing…  I ended up feeling really depressed again and not sure what to do.

I did complete a profile for one site in the end.  I might go on a couple of others too.  My friend was also really helpful.  So that is all positive.  In other news, however, I got two job rejections, for the job I was interviewed for recently and for another one that I quite wanted.

***

This evening I went to my parents’ shul (synagogue) for a Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) event.  I enjoyed it to some extent, but not hugely.  There was a good magician, but I was terrified he would pick on me to come up on to the stage to help with his act.  I also felt swamped by the number of people, most of whom I didn’t know, and by the noise.  I slipped out during the raffle to get away from it all.  But I think the real reason I was subdued was that, with a small war in Israel over the weekend, the festivities seemed a bit hollow.  They just seemed to show how far we still have to go.  I thought a bit about this story about my hero, the Kotzker Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, nineteenth century Hasidic rabbi).  I found the story here some time ago.  I edited it and tidied it up a little to read at the seder this year, although I didn’t have time to rewrite it totally into my “voice”:

One  year, the Kotzker Rebbe failed to pass out Maror [bitter herb, eaten at the seder in memory of the bitterness of the Egyptian slavery] to his family and those at the Seder.   The people around the table whispered to the Sochatchover Rebbe, the Kotzker Rebbe’s son in law, that he should remind the Kotzker to pass out Maror.   The Sochatchover in a light-hearted comment to the Kotzker Rebbe mentioned a disagreement in the Talmud whether Marror today is Rabbinic or Biblical.  The Sochatchover said to his father-in-law that I have a proof from the Rebbe that Maror is Rabbinic, because the Rebbe has not passed out the Maror.

The Kotzker responded to his son-in-law, you are correct and gave Maror to everyone.  Suddenly, the Kotzker declared in a loud voice, “Maror Fressers”, Maror Fressers translates into, People who indulge in Maror.  Due to the fear of the Rebbe everyone around the table scattered and only the Sochatchover remained.

After a while Reb Hersh Tomashover [the Rebbe’s gabbai, essentially his PA], came in the room and the Kotzker asked him, where is everyone.  Reb Hersh answered that the Rebbe chased them out of the house when the Rebbe screamed out, Maror Fressers.  The Kotzker replied that he did not mean the people around the table.

When the Kotzker screamed out Maror Fressers, he was praying to God.  Maror is bitterness and slavery and persecution.  Enough already.  It is time for Moshaich [the Messiah].  The Jews have suffered and suffered and suffered.   The Jews are constantly eating Maror and it is time for salvation.

Jews, Diversity and Role Models in the Media

(This is really a continuation of my last post with added thoughts from the last few hours.)

I managed to get to the shiur (religious class) at the London School of Jewish Studies this evening, despite some social anxiety.  The class was interesting and despite my problems with concentration at the moment just flew by; I didn’t look at my watch once in an hour and a half.  Much of it was familiar to me, but I learnt some things and it was good to hear Torah that was coming from a slightly different perspective to what I’m used to hearing at shul (synagogue) and, one closer to my personal hashkafa (religious philosophy).

The audience was a bit depressing, though.  Out of maybe sixty or seventy people (I’m bad at estimating numbers) there were three or four people roughly my age; everyone else was my parents’ generation or older.  I think that’s a fairly accurate reflection of Modern Orthodoxy in this country.  The moderate Modern/Centrist Orthodoxy represented by the United Synagogue is polarising; some are becoming Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) (which I guess is what I have done, even if for practical rather than ideological reasons); the rest are just leaving – either leaving Judaism entirely or leaving Orthodoxy for Progressive Judaism or, more usually I think, simply not joining any kind of organised community.  All of which makes me worry about how I can meet people with a similar hashkafa to make friends and maybe to get married (one day, maybe, perhaps).

***

On my previous post, Ashley Leia suggested I was mistaken in complaining of antisemitism in this week’s Doctor Who, so I should probably clarify that I wasn’t suggesting the writers are consciously antisemitic, merely that they used a trope that has traditionally been used by Christian antisemitic (or anti-Jewish, if you want to split hairs over the difference between antisemitism and anti-Judaism) polemicists to attack Judaism (presenting Judaism as a religion of justice or even vengeance as against Christianity as a religion of love, even though Christianity’s commandments of love are quotations from Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament)).  This was unfortunate, particularly in a series that has trumpeted its own commitment to diversity, doubly so in the second episode this series to portray organised religion as primarily a force for division and persecution with few positive points.  It increasingly, uncomfortably, feels to me like “diversity” is often circumscribed (in Doctor Who and in Western culture in general) and that cultures that are truly alien to the writers’ (and most of the audience’s) worldviews, that is religious and traditional cultures, are met with criticism rather than acceptance, something that is only applied to “safe” cultures that do not threaten postmodern liberal values.  As Alan Verskin put it in a recent review in The Jewish Review of Books “Tolerating a culture because it is no different from your own is not a good test of toleration.”

The entirety of Verskin’s review, of a recent children’s fantasy novel dealing with Medieval Jewish history, may be of interest to some readers here, to people interested in fantasy and especially in diversity issues in fantastic and historical fiction.  Verskin also talks about realising “how remarkably few Jewish characters there are in books that are not expressly made and marketed for Jewish children (the exception being Holocaust literature, which, of course, is a different matter).”  I would say that if you are looking for specifically religious Jewish characters (not necessarily Orthodox, but with some meaningful connection to Jewish tradition, texts and practice), they are almost non-existent, whether in children’s fiction or adult fiction and whatever the medium, even in stories written by Jews.  Many years ago I read the Jewish science fiction and fantasy anthologies Wandering Stars and More Wandering Stars; the engagement with Jewish texts, traditions and substantive culture (not necessarily religious culture, but more than the odd Yiddishism or bagel) was limited in most of the stories, many of which saw Judaism as defined by antisemitism as much as by Jews and their culture (cf. Jean-Paul Sartre).

The main exceptions are books, film and TV from Israel, which, by their nature often have limited impact in other countries, both due to the language barrier and the fact that culture from small countries often struggles to penetrate foreign markets.  Sometimes one can find translated books or subtitled films, but it is not always possible.

I used to think that I didn’t need to see fictional characters who reflect my life experiences and thoughts, but lately I have found (partly thanks to all the talk of diversity in Western culture) that I do.  In the absence of figures like me, religious Jewish figures, I find myself drawn either to surrogates (I have alluded in the past to the article in European Judaism that the Doctor from Doctor Who, despite being an alien time-traveller, is in fact the most positively-portrayed Jew on British television, at least symbolically speaking) or to biblical, Midrashic or rabbinic figures.

There is definitely a danger in taking prophets and tzaddikim (saintly people), whether ancient or more modern, as my heroes, especially for someone such as myself with a poor sense of self and a perhaps permeable boundary between the real and the imaginary, not to mention a psyche given to extreme self-criticism, but with occasional counter-veiling moments of delusions of grandeur.  In particular, I look for figures who can model Jewish observance alongside mental health issues or neurodivergent traits.  I have already spoken a few times about the eighteenth and nineteenth century religious leaders, Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav and the Kotzker Rebbe and their importance for me as figures who combined active religious life with bouts of extreme (probably clinical) depression, self-criticism and/or withdrawal thus providing some kind of model for my own attempts at building a religious life despite my mental health issues.  Perhaps I will try to explore some of these role models and mentors in future posts.

Leaping Souls

I’m writing this idly while waiting for Mum to wake up so we can light Chanukah candles (she’s not feeling well, so we haven’t lit yet).  I wasn’t planning on writing as I don’t really have much to say today, or rather, I do, but I need time to process things, discuss them with my therapist (who is away until January now) and internalise them and even then some of them may be too personal to write.  But I’m at a loose end, so I’ll write a bit of what I’ve been feeling over the last few weeks and especially over Shabbat (the Sabbath).

Shabbat was hard again.  I felt quite depressed and socially anxious in shul (synagogue) on Friday night again and slept through Shabbat morning after insomnia on Friday night.  The depression really does hit me in shul on Shabbat evening, when I’m away from the displacement activity of work.  I felt better during dinner, but felt very depressed and anxious during my hitbodedut.  Hitbodedut (literally ‘making oneself alone’) combines elements of prayer, meditation and, I guess, therapy.  Whereas prayer in Judaism usually means set prayers, in Hebrew, with a minyan (prayer quorum), hitbodedut is just talking to God in the vernacular, for as long as you want, saying whatever you want.  During the week it’s been very hard to do lately, partly from tiredness, partly from the ‘blocked’ nature of so much of my life, particularly my religious life, at the moment.  But on Shabbat it all comes out.  A lot of pain and depression and guilt and probably some anxiety and maybe sometimes anger.  Feelings of inadequacy and wondering how I can go on.

Lately I wonder how I can go on, why I’m still a frum (religious) Jew when Judaism probably causes me some pain and certainly uses a lot of energy, motivation and concentration that is in short supply with the depression, social anxiety and Asperger’s.  It’s not for reward, because I feel like God hates me and wants to punish me and that I don’t deserve a share in Olam HaBa (the Next World).  It’s not for fear of punishment, because even though I know rationally that punishment in Olam HaBa is worse than anything in this world, what I have been suffering over the last seventeen years or so seems as bad as anything else I could suffer; anyway, suffering in Olam HaBa only lasts one year, then you go to your reward or, if you’re really bad, your soul just stops existing.  That seems better than what I’m going through now, which has been going on for seventeen years (at least) and could go on for another seventy. It’s not for family reasons, because I’m the most religious person in my immediate family, so I’m not fitting in with the others.  It’s not from peer pressure, because most of my friends are not frum or not Jewish and most of the Jewish friendships have been made after things got hard for me.  It’s not for community, because I don’t feel I belong to one.  It’s not for simcha shel mitzvah (the joy of performing the commandments) because I don’t generally feel it because of the depression, although I do love Shabbat.

All I know is the story told by the Kotzker Rebbe (my hero), that all the souls come down to Earth from Heaven and the angel pulls up the ladder behind them.  God says, “Leap up to Heaven.”  Some souls say, “It’s impossible to leap from Earth to Heaven” and don’t even try.  Some try for a bit, but soon give up.  But some say, “If God tells me to leap into Heaven, I must keep trying” and they try and try and eventually God has mercy on them and reaches down and pulls them into Heaven.

I guess for me the jumping is an end in itself.  It’s the triumph of will over experience.  I believe in God and in the divine authorship of the Torah, so I jump, even though it hurts and even though I don’t expect to get anything positive out of it.

Anyway, I can’t imagine not being a Jew and I can’t imagine Judaism without halakhah (Jewish law/practice) – all attempts at creating cultural or non-halakhic Judaisms seem to me to be problematic and question-begging.  So I keep halakhah to be a Jew, because I am a Jew and I know I want to be a Jew.  Maybe it doesn’t have to be any deeper than that.