Thoughts on an Autumn Shabbat

It seems like it was only a few days ago that we were in the middle of a summer heatwave and now suddenly it’s autumn and wet and cold, or at least colder. I think I experience a rise in my anxiety levels at this time of year, despite no longer being in the academic world; apparently, this is common, although the cause is unknown. In my case, the imminence of the Jewish autumn festivals is probably a part of it, but the longer nights are a part too.

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was peaceful, although I still feel somewhat stressed and anxious about the week(s) ahead. I didn’t feel well enough to go to shul (synagogue). I was too exhausted. I slept a lot, as I usually do, and felt bad for not staying up when I got up to go to the toilet at 8am. This is far from the first time this has happened. I’m not sure if I go back to bed because of continuing tiredness, an autistic comfort desire to wrap myself in my duvet and weighted blanket, or, on Shabbat, social anxiety about going to shul if I get up. Possibly all three. It is hard to work on it if I don’t know what causes it — or maybe it’s not. Maybe I have to just tell myself to be strong and stay up. I don’t know how to do that, though, and, as I’ve said before, my shul-based social anxiety has definitely got worse over the last few years because of COVID. I still think lockdown was the right decision, but the hidden costs continue to mount up.

I am also developing a theory that napping is more restful for me than sleeping for a long time. If I do have sleep apnoea, it tends to be worse when lying on one’s back or front. I go to bed sleeping on my side, but I move when I sleep. My hypothesis is that when I nap, I don’t move; only if I’m sleeping for several hours do I move. Hence, short afternoon naps are refreshing, even after having slept for twelve hours (and woken up exhausted), and sleeping for five or six hours before work is not too bad, but sleeping a full night leads to a negative loop of sleeping, turning over, being unable to breathe and waking more tired than I went to bed. As a hypothesis, it probably requires more research, although I’m not sure how at the moment.

Other than that I read quite a bit, Jewish things and The Third Reich in Power, and also Asterix the Gaul when I wasn’t quite ready to sleep yet, but was too tired for more Nazis, abusive rabbis, annoying characters being tortured by Islamists or anything else I’ve been reading about lately.

I didn’t really do a lot else other than sleep, read and eat. Just try to stay in the calm of Shabbat, away from wedding bureaucracy, work stress and the death of the Queen. I find myself getting more emotionally involved in the latter than I expected. I used to be a republican, then when I became more conservative (or, more accurately, realised that I was already conservative, and that it’s OK to be a unique kind of conservative that has very little in common with any actual conservative political parties), I developed a sort of abstract constitutional monarchism for coldly intellectual reasons, but none of the emotional attachment to flesh-and-blood royals I see in people on TV and, indeed, in my family (many of whom self-describe as socialists, but also strong monarchists. This is more common in the UK than you might think).

I’ve never really bothered watching royal stuff on TV, whether the Queen’s jubilees or various royal funerals, but I find myself watching now, at least the clips on the news if not the live coverage. Apart from wanting to show respect for the Queen’s immense hard work and dedication to duty, some of it is curiosity watching clips of the late Queen and now the King talking about religion and the Church of England, of which they both were/are head. I know this will seem strange to my American readers (which is most of them), but it’s almost unheard of these days for someone in public life in the UK to talk about God. The data from last year’s census about religion has not been released yet, but it’s expected to show “No religious belief” as the largest single religious descriptor. Most politicians are not religious and have no interest in presenting themselves as such. The few who are religious downplay it e.g. Tony Blair, who is a religious Christian, but whose Press Secretary and Spokesman Alastair Campbell would remind (or reprimand) him, “We don’t do God!” Similarly, Gordon Brown and Theresa May are both the children of clergymen, but rarely speak about religion. It’s really a relief to see traditional Judeo-Christian religion being spoken of on British TV as something other than backward, oppressive and irrational.

The King also seems more human somehow, a pain in his eyes that might be the sudden loss of his mother a year after the death of his father, but seemed to me more than that, a maturity that comes only from having made mistakes and experienced the painful consequences of them, which I suppose I don’t really associate with royals (having to live with the consequences of their actions).

I didn’t mean to write all this! I guess it made an impact on me. What I meant to write about was reaching the conclusion lately that I really have to go back on Facebook and try to see if there are groups for people on the fringes of the Orthodox Jewish community who want to be a part of it, but can’t manage to do so, for whatever reason. Then either to join them if they exist or set one up if they don’t. This seems pretty daunting, as I’m only vaguely aware of how Facebook groups work (they didn’t have them when I was on Facebook a decade ago) and doing social-related stuff isn’t my forte. But I do feel there are people out there looking for support.

There probably is more to say, but it’s long gone midnight, and while I’m not tired (too much daytime sleep), I should probably wind down for the night and watch Doctor Who (The Ribos Operation — atypical and underrated character-based story).

How to Destupidify myself?

I didn’t have work today, J having switched my days this week.  This was probably for the best, as I slept a long time after all the stuff I was doing yesterday (tax return, visa form).  The house was almost empty when I woke up, just me and Dad.  I know that’s the usual number of people on a weekday, but after so many being around for the last few days, it felt empty.  Dad made some enquiries on my behalf about changing shul (synagogue) membership to get married by my parents’ rabbi. We don’t have to change it for a while.  When we do change, I think we get a year of free membership in any shul in the United Synagogue, so it’s worth not changing that until nearer the time, although Dad feels I should continue with membership of my current shul until then “just in case” (this is him being morbid, meaning so that I’m not left without burial membership anywhere for a number of months, just in case I drop dead suddenly). I’ll go to my parents’ shul for the Yom Tovim (festivals) as my shul will be in its new premises, twice as far away. If I wasn’t getting married, or was getting married there, I might have still gone there, but it seems silly when I won’t be going there much longer anyway.

Today was mostly spent on the tax return (which was a real headache, but which I still need to spend some time on, despite having spent about three hours on it already) and scanning documents for E’s visa application.  I didn’t manage much of the latter, as the tax return left me exhausted. I did get a walk in, which I didn’t manage yesterday, but I only did a few minutes of Torah study, compared with more yesterday.

I miss E a lot and I know she misses me.  It’s hard being apart for so long when we already feel married.

I did manage to phone about pre-marriage classes for E and myself, which is positive, especially as I had a lot of social anxiety about the call beforehand.

***

As I mentioned, I’ve been filling in my tax return.  It seems really difficult.  I feel like, “I’m autistic, I’m supposed to be good with numbers and methodical; I am (or at least I was) a librarian, which is also supposed to make me methodical; so why do I always struggle to find the documents I need, and to find the right figures on the documents once I’ve got them?”  The papers aren’t even in that much of a mess, they’re actually organised reasonably well, but somehow the piece of paper I need isn’t ever where it should be.  And I’m not that good with numbers.  Even at school, where I got good grades in maths and even did A-level physics, I wasn’t intuitively good with numbers the way some of my geeky friends were.  Maths was always a second language I could translate into in my head, but not intuitively think in.

Doing things like this just leaves me confused as I go from document to document.  I have to keep reminding myself which tax year I’m doing this for, otherwise I’ll forget and enter the wrong data.  Just to confuse myself further, midway through the last tax year, I switched from being a freelance contractor to a permanent staff member, although still doing the same job in the same institution.

I just feel incompetent these days.  At school, I was a high achiever, academically (socially was another story), but I think I survived by putting myself in a protective bubble for fourteen years, memorising vast amounts of data and filtering out the real world (noise, smells, social interactions, bullies, eventually even out-of-school-activities and almost everything other than work in the end).  My good memory for trivia stood me in good stead in exams, but after that, I had to go into university and then into the world, and suddenly critical thinking skills, analytical skills, problem-solving skills, flexibility and creativity were all more important than just being able to remember lots of facts or even remembering other people’s arguments.

I have two degrees, but I work two days a week in a low-skill job which I am over-qualified for, but in which I still regularly make big mistakes.  The mistakes are probably partly out of boredom, but also from having to work on multiple documents at once or just my inability to remember things nowadays.  My mistakes fuel my low self-esteem, which in turn probably causes more mistakes as I assume I will fail.  I feel like somewhere along the line, after years of autistic burnout and mental illness, I just got stupid and I don’t know how to destupidify myself.  Sadly, I think anecdotal evidence indicates that prolonged autistic burnout, and prolonged bouts of mental illness, can both lead to a decline in cognitive ability.  It now looks like I have a sleep disorder too, so I can throw sleep deprivation into the mix too.

***

Liz Truss is the new Prime Minister.  I don’t really have any thoughts about this, except that it cements my feeling that I can’t vote for any current political party.  I think I dreamt about Gladstone last night, although I don’t remember the details.   I do feel the world in general has a terrible crisis of leadership at the moment, although realistically great leaders only come around every quarter-century or so.

Favourite Authors and More

Sorry, WordPress has messed up the formatting of this post and I don’t have time to fix it before Shabbat. I have the usual Friday exhaustion feelings. I woke up feeling exhausted and only really felt functional after lunch. I feel bad that I do relatively little paid work during the week and still get so tired. I do things on my non-work days, of course, (volunteering, novel writing, stuff around the house), but it doesn’t feel ‘enough’ to justify this exhaustion. I  still wonder if this is an depression/antidepressant side-effect issue, an autistic exhaustion issue or some kind of sleep issue. Today the doctors at the sleep clinic were supposed to decide if and how they should help me, so hopefully I’ll hear something there soon, as I do increasingly feel this is a sleep issue that I could have dealt with ages ago if I’d realised. I know my GP felt that waking up as tired/more tired than I went to bed most days sounds more like a poor quality sleep issue than anything else. *** The “something will stop E and I getting married” anxieties are lower today, but when I got up I had some of the the “I’m going to be pushing forty when I get married, and that’s far too old to learn how to have sex, and how to enjoy it, and to help E enjoy it, so why I am I even trying?” thoughts. This is probably the voice of the kids who bullied me at school, the ones who thought it would be hilarious to send me a prank love note or Valentine’s Card on the grounds that no one could possibly fancy me in real life.  I have to tell myself that I don’t care what they think, and that I love E, and being intimate with her will be amazing regardless of how technically “proficient” I am, and that middle aged and older people do still have, and enjoy having, sex, regardless of what the media says. I don’t want to overstress the anxiety, because it’s mostly under control.  It can flare up for a short while, but generally not for long. I have some coping strategies now, and some hard-copy reminders of those strategies in case the anxiety is so intense that I forget to use them. I know many people have much more intense and long-lasting anxiety than that (I’ve had that in the past), but it is frustrating when I want to concentrate on moving on to marriage and being able to say to myself, “This IS going to happen, everything will be fine.”  I guess I just have to keep telling myself that until I fully believe it. *** A lot of my worries lately (lately? My whole life!) have been about trying to find or to make a place for myself in the world — the frum (religious Jewish) world and the wider world. I used to think I had to magically find an appropriate place for myself; now, it feels more like I have to make one, but that perhaps I can succeed. Franz Kafka is one of my three favourite fiction authors, along with Jorge Luis Borges and Philip K. Dick. I don’t re-read him as much as the others (actually, lately I re-read a lot less in general, to try to get through my ‘To Read’ pile), but he made a big impression on me. His unfinished novel, The Castle (apparently the German title can mean with The Castle or The Key) is about a Land Surveyor who is summoned to a castle, but when he gets to the village that surrounds it, no one knows who he is or believes he has been summoned, and he isn’t allowed into the castle. The novel breaks off partway through, but apparently we know that Kafka intended it to end with the Land Surveyor, on his deathbed, being given temporary leave to remain in the village. It’s a bittersweet ending, implying that we can make room for ourselves in the world, but not necessarily as much as we would want or when we want. I think of it a lot when I think about making a place for myself in the world, and the frum world. Interestingly, when I applied to be on the emerging writers’ programme, the application form asked for me to write about my favourite authors. I said that my three favourite authors didn’t really influence my writing directly. I wrote instead about being inspired by Chaim Potok (writing about Orthodox Jews) and George Orwell (his essays, rather than his novels, and his clear prose style rather than the content). However, I think there is some influence from Kafka and Dick, and to a lesser extent Borges, in that they wrote about ordinary people caught up in strange and disturbing situations, as I do, it’s just that their situations are more fantastic/science fictional whereas mine are more realistic. But the effect I’m aiming for is probably the same, to show people that the world can be strange and threatening. *** I find myself more shocked my the assassination of Japan’s former Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, than by the recent shooting in the US, even though I can’t claim to follow Japanese politics closely. It’s got to a stage where American shootings are no longer shocking, sadly; upsetting and anger-provoking, but not shocking. But violent crime is rare in Japan and it feels as if something serious has changed for the worse in the world if something like this can happen there. *** The rest of this post is about Doctor Who, so feel free to skip if that’s of no interest. Incidentally, E says I get really animated when I talk about Doctor Who in real life, so it’s a probably a good thing that she finds that endearing and not offputtingly geeky. E and I have been watching classic Doctor Who again, this time from the 1970 season, Jon Pertwee’s first in the title role. It’s a season I rate highly, so I’m glad that E is enjoying it so far. It’s a strange season in some ways, a lot less humorous and whimsical than most Doctor Who, past and present, and more adult, not in a sex and violence sense, but in the sense of more complex characters and themes that ask difficult questions. While I hesitate to call any Doctor Who ‘realistic,’ it does have more of a sense of verisimilitude than most. Watching Doctor Who and the Silurians in a post-COVID world undermines some of that verisimilitude — the whole plot thread about “Oh no, there’s a terrible plague! Oh good, we’ve cured it in a couple of hours!” seems unrealistic now (I mean, I didn’t find it realistic in the past, but now it just seems laughable). That said, the scenes of dozens of people dropping dead in Central London are pretty harrowing for what was still largely seen as a children’s programme at the time. I’m glad that COVID never came to that. E suggested that Dr Lawrence, the paranoid director of a nuclear research centre who is convinced that the plague is a hoax to remove him from his position, is the original anti-vaxxer, and it’s hard to disagree with that. He comes to an appropriately nasty end.

Chances of Rejection

I had a surprisingly busy day today. The scariest thing was phoning Rabbi B to move E and my wedding forward, but he didn’t answer the phone. I left a voice message asking him to phone me back, but I don’t know if he will. If he does, it will probably be tomorrow morning at work (his voicemail message says he works Monday to Wednesday and Thursday mornings), which may be a bit awkward. The situation is frustrating and I don’t know how to push it forward at the moment.

I do feel optimistic about getting married, but there’s a nagging fear that I’m going to get stuck in some kind of Waiting for Godot situation of constantly moving towards getting married, but never quite getting there.

***

Ashley gave me permission to quote the following discussion which we had on the comments section of her blog:

Luftmentsch: My question about CBT for social anxiety, which I haven’t really seen answered or even posed anywhere, is what if people really would reject you if they knew you better? What if you really are doing things that are considered socially unacceptable in your sub-culture? I feel this in particular in the frum world, but also in other places too, that some of my actions or beliefs would be socially unacceptable if people knew about them. It’s why I hide so much of my life, even on my blog.

Ashley: Regarding being unacceptable, I think CBT would probably consider a few things:

-How balanced is the thought? There probably are some people who will find what you think/do to be unacceptable, but are you overestimating the probability?

-Have you tested the belief? If it’s something that you’re expecting, then you’re already carrying that burden around with you. Testing it at least clears up some of the hypotheticals so you can make decisions based on what’s actually happening rather than what might happen.

-Is the behaviour associated with the belief serving you? Even if it is true that some people will reject you as being socially unacceptable; is hiding much of your life an acceptable price to pay to reduce the odds of that? To use a simpler example, traffic accidents are common, and you can greatly reduce the risk of being hit by a car by never leaving your house, but the pros of living your life without being housebound likely offset the risk of stepping outside.

Luftmentsch: Regarding my current, Haredi shul:

1) It’s very hard to tell how balanced some of the thoughts are. It can be hard to tell what people really believe, as opposed to what the rabbi tells them to believe, and I often find it hard to gauge what things are acceptable anyway. The previous rabbi of my shul was a surprisingly erudite person in many ways, but he was also a creationist who always the referred to the Enlightenment as “the ironically-named Enlightenment.” I’m not a creationist and I have a more positive view of the Enlightenment. Did other people in the community agree with me or with him? It is very hard to tell. Which brings me to

2) it’s hard to test without knowing what the consequences would be of being right (that people would disagree). Would they reject me? Throw me out of the community? I don’t know. I never had the guts to risk it.

3) Before E and I started dating again, I guess the price seemed worth it. I hoped people at shul would set me up with a “nice frum girl.” Over time, it became clear that I probably wouldn’t connect well with someone that my shul considered appropriately frum, if there even were any women my age still unmarried, and that no one had any intention of setting me up anyway (my paranoia said they had already sussed me out as an social and ideological deviant and were trying to keep me on the fringes of the community and especially away from single frum women). It still seemed worth staying, as I preferred praying there to any of the alternatives. But now I’m leaving to marry E, I find it more tiresome, particularly as the shul building works mean I’m not around the community anyway and find it harder to connect with them any more.

The Modern Orthodox community should be more welcoming, but I’m still scared to test things. Evolution and secular studies would be OK there, but I find it hard to tell what level of cultural involvement is permitted.

But I struggle even outside the frum community. I’m wary of showing off any breadth of knowledge to most people because I was bullied so much for it as a child. I can say I haven’t tested it with adults, but (a) I kind of did, because adults didn’t like me showing knowledge either when I was a child and (b) it’s hard to do the tests having failed them once, even if I might get different results now. And I don’t dare talk politics anywhere, in my experience most people I know have different thoughts and, as I don’t care that much about politics, it’s safer not to say anything than to out myself as different and see what response I get.

I could probably safely talk more about Doctor Who, given that it’s more popular now than when I grew up, but being bullied for liking it as a child has scarred me for life and stops me mentioning it to anyone now. I guess I like it being “mine” too.

(Of course, if my novel gets finished and published, it’s going to be boundary-pushing in a big way even in the Modern Orthodox world, and I’m not really happy about that.)

Ashley: I can definitely see how bullying would have a major impact.

It seems like it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to ever feel accepted anywhere while keeping a lot of things actively hidden, as any apparent signs of acceptance could easily be dismissed as contingent on continuing to hide the things that feel unacceptable.

Luftmentsch: That is pretty much how it has actually been for the past thirty or so years, except with a few trusted people e.g. E. I would like to challenge it, but the risk of losing the few friends and connections I do have always seems too great.

(End of quotes)

I would add to this discussion that the effects of childhood bullying and some other childhood stuff (which I don’t discuss here, but have spoken about in therapy) has left me feeling pretty broken and unlovable, like I can only be accepted if I pretend not to be myself, or even just efface myself, just don’t say anything, just sit there and try to be invisible. Autism probably just makes this worse. It is hard to know how to challenge this when the risks of losing the few friends and the little social standing in the frum community that I do have seems so great (although apparently I believe my muse justifies taking even greater risks, which I don’t understand at all).

The partial exception to this is my blog, where I’m a lot more open about my thoughts, although I still largely avoid politics. I feel more confident that my friends here accept the different facets of my personality, and my character flaws, although I think it took me quite a while to feel like that. Also, I met E through my blog and that was probably a big reason why I was able to open up to her and connect to her more than to other people. I do feel completely accepted and unconditionally loved by E and able to tell her almost anything (I’m not sure it’s healthy to tell even your spouse literally everything).

Meaning, Headaches, Yeshivish, and Woke Librarians

On Thursday I received a text from the NHS saying I had an appointment with the respiratory clinic. Attached was a letter that was supposed to explain about it. It was totally blank, not even a letterhead. I thought it hadn’t sent, so I checked the app on my computer and it was blank there too. Some running around on my part later, I discovered the appointment is something to do with my referral to the sleep clinic. Why did it say respiratory? Presumably because otherwise it would be too easy for me to know what was going on. It’s a phone or video appointment, and beyond that I don’t know anything about it, because I’m a mere patient and why do I need to know anything? I hope to receive more information before then, like details of what to do to keep the appointment, but who knows?

I also have abnormal blood test results that no one has contacted me about. I’m assuming the GP saw them and thought they were not serious enough to contact me about, but it would be nice to be told that I don’t need to worry. What’s the point of giving me access to my results if you don’t explain them? Now I need to phone the surgery to check there’s nothing serious wrong, but I keep putting it off because phoning the surgery is a nightmare. I wonder if that’s intentional, and how many people die because of it?

Honestly, dealing with the NHS is like being a character in a Kafka novel, yet somehow most people in this country think that the NHS is an national treasure.

***

I went to shul (synagogue) on Friday night and again on Saturday afternoon. The latter was because I felt that I didn’t want to go for social anxiety reasons and I wanted to challenge that, so I was pleased I went.

On Friday night I had a headache, perhaps because of the heat. I did some Torah study and a small amount of recreational reading, but I spent a lot of time standing in the doorway to the garden, trying to cool off and stop my head hurting. I had another headache today, from running. I’m not sure if exercising is such a good idea if I just end up eating crisps to get rid of possibly lack of salt-induced headaches afterwards.

***

I don’t know if I should go into this, but when my head hurt too much to read, I thought a lot about meaning. Lots of frum (religious Jewish) people cite ‘meaning’ as one reason for being frum. I know I’ve done it before. But I saw something the other day where a frum person was talking about her life being full of meaning and I wondered what it really meant. Does it mean that every time I do a religious-related action (e.g. saying a blessing) I feel connected to God? Or that I feel a great sense of purpose in my life in general? Or that I accept why bad things happen to me and to other people? None of these things really seem true for me (I can’t speak for other frum people).

In the end the point I got to is that, for me at least, meaning is about the search for meaning as an end in itself. As one of my religious heroes, the Kotzker Rebbe said, “The searching is the finding.” It is the pursuit of meaning that gives my life meaning, even if I don’t ultimately find it, or not more than brief moments of insight. It’s about pushing through apparent moments of religious certainty to say, “Is this real? Have I connected with God or is it ego or delusion?” and to keep looking even after that.

For me, meaning is about trying to deepen my understanding of three groups of people: God, other humans, and myself. You could say that the first corresponds to Torah study, the second to acts of kindness (empathy and listening) and the third perhaps to prayer, meditation and introspection (cf. Pirkei Avot 1.2). I struggle with more abstract forms of meaning and I don’t have the level of clarity and connection other religious people (of various religions) seem to have, or claim to have. I’m not sure if that’s a fault in me or not.

***

I’m making progress with my novel. I’m uncertain what to do about Hebrew and Yiddish language usage. I started writing something at least vaguely like the “Yeshivish” dialect the characters would speak in real life, but the amount of untranslated words has mounted up and I feel it’s become excessive. But where do I draw the line? For example, should the children call their parents Abba and Imma or Dad and Mum? And that’s an easier example, as in real life some people from that milieu would go for the latter even if most would use the former. A sentence like “I went to the synagogue on the Sabbath and was called to read from the Bible” just seems ridiculous when the character would clearly say, “I went to shul on Shabbos and had an aliyah.” But the latter requires explanation somehow, whether in the text, footnotes or glossary.

I’m not even getting into Yeshivish syntax, because that’s where my own knowledge falls down; I don’t feel able to write sentences like “Where are you holding?” (“How are you? What are you up to?”), “Would you like to eat by us?” (“Would you like to come to us for dinner?”) or “You have what to rely on” (“You have a religious source that supports your view”).

***

I cancelled my membership of CILIP, the librarians’ professional body. I did it mostly because it was costing me nearly £100 a year and I wasn’t getting anything in return except a monthly magazine I barely read and a weekly job email that I haven’t used to apply for a job in ages. Beyond that, there’s a lot in CILIP publications about inclusion and diversity, but nothing about Jews, which annoys me. We are a minority! Jews were the most visible (not to mention persecuted) minority in the West for centuries, and now everyone’s decided we’re super-privileged. This just underlines how woke CILIP has become and how uncomfortable and unwanted I felt as someone who is sceptical of a lot of wokeness as performative and taking sensible ideas (like diversity and inclusion) to an extreme where they become ridiculous. Still, I feel sad, as it’s yet another step in my moving away from being a librarian and into an uncertain future, career-wise.

***

I ordered some high-strength vitamin D tablets from Boots. When they arrived, there was a bottle of hand sanitiser with them. I can’t work out if Boots made a mistake, or if hand sanitiser is considered a suitable free gift post-COVID.

Turning Points

The last few days have been fairly busy. I surprised myself by not being very anxious on Shabbat (the Sabbath) even knowing I had the meeting with Rabbi L on Sunday. I didn’t go to shul (synagogue), though. I felt slightly ill (headache, light-headed) on Friday night and while it passed fairly quickly, by that stage I had missed a lot of the service. I had insomnia on Friday night and, when I woke up at 8am on Saturday morning, I went back to sleep instead of forcing myself to get up as I did on the first day of Shavuot. Minchah (Afternoon Service) is at an awkward time at the moment, either 6pm for the early service or 9pm for the late service, so I missed that too. I want to try to make more of an effort to get to shul next week. I did some Torah study, went for a walk and read a lot of Harry Potter. I felt vaguely under the weather on Saturday evening and my parents made me take a COVID test ahead of their brief holiday in Tunbridge Wells this week, but it was negative.

On Sunday I did some novel-writing, although not so much and with poor concentration, perhaps partly from anxiety about E and my Zoom meeting with Rabbi L about getting married. That meeting went very well, and I’m now a lot happier about feeling we don’t have any insurmountable halakhic (Jewish law) obstacles to our getting married, and am reasonably confident of getting married in early 2023. The Zoom call ended abruptly when the forty minutes free call finished. Rabbi L phoned me for a few minutes to finish the call and seemed genuinely pleased that I’m getting married and approving of E, more than he would be for someone he didn’t know. I guess he knows some of my story (I used to bombard him with some of my religious OCD (kashrut) questions when my OCD was bad), so he can see how far I’ve come.

Strangely, immediately after the call, I drifted into depression and OCD anxiety. There was also some anxiety (not OCD) when I woke up this morning, but it drifted away after breakfast. I’m not sure why my mood went down when things were going well. Some of it was probably the tension release. Some of it is probably that E and I have a lot to do in the next eight or nine months, starting this week. And some of it is probably the expected response to a looming major life-change. I also have some “I don’t deserve to be so happy” thoughts. I wonder why I get to get married when so many people I know are single, divorced, widowed, or in struggling marriages. I have to remind myself that I had decades of loneliness, singledom and rejection to get to this point.

I had a lot of racing thoughts last night. After a while, they weren’t anxious or depressed thoughts, but they would not stop and I struggled to sleep. I got about four hours in the end before I had to get up for work.

Work today was boring, but when I got home I had some energy so worked on my novel for forty-five minutes and wrote about 500 words before I started to feel burnt out and went downstairs to make dinner. I feel pretty exhausted now, but not sleepy. I’ll probably watch something light on TV to unwind; I don’t really feel up to reading, not even Harry Potter, but I need some proper relaxation time or I won’t sleep and I’ll be burnt out tomorrow.

***

I feel like I’ve had some paradigm shifts in how I view aspects of the world in the last few days:

  1. I find it easier to believe that God supports me and that good things have happened to me and been achieved by me. I don’t focus so much on the bad things that have happened to me or see enduring mental illness as my only real achievement. (That said, I wish I could have seen this article about enduring depression and anxiety being spiritual success and holy work when I was at my worst. Like the author’s husband, I’ve also put on tefillin moments before sunset. I never really thought of it as anything holy.)
  2. I’m trying to move from thinking, I don’t fit in whenever I’m in a group, I have so many differences to most of the people, because I’m not normal to I can connect with many people even if I don’t have a lot in common with them.
  3. In the past I’ve felt I owed people from my personal history an explanation: “I’m like this [weird, different] because I’m depressed/autistic, and I’m sorry if I hurt you as a result.” It’s actually been a major motivator for me to write, fiction, articles and blogging. But today I wonder if I do owe anyone an explanation. There are people I have hurt, undoubtedly, and it would be nice if I could explain that, but I didn’t deliberately hurt anyone. I had a major neurodevelopmental disorder that I didn’t know about, which resulted in my spending nearly forty years trying to push a very square peg in a succession of round holes. I even wonder a bit what I would hope to gain from explaining myself to people.

***

Lately I’ve been listening to a big Glam Rock compilation CD I bought. I’ve been enjoying it a lot, although you could probably have a long and pointless argument over genre demarcations and how much of it is really Glam (Glam vs. Bubblegum Pop vs. early Disco etc.).

I’ve never really worked out why I like Glam Rock. Words I associate with Glam are: loud, theatrical (even camp), quirky, gender-bending, attention-grabbing. I am not any of those things, except maybe quirky. I am not David Bowie with lightning on his face or Noddy Holder in a glittery tailcoat and mirrored top hat. Maybe that’s the appeal, that it’s really not me, in the way I like the James Bond novels because they’re really not me. Or maybe I just find the upbeat nature of the music fits with the way I use music, to cheer myself up and motivate. Certainly it’s often not particularly clever music in the way other music I like is (The Beatles, The Kinks, Paul Simon, Sting), except for Bowie again (who isn’t on the CD). Unless you can find deep meaning in Cum on Feel the Noize or Tiger Feet.

I think someone (JYP?) should write a Perfect Day parody: Pluperfect Day: “It was such a pluperfect day/I was glad I had spent it with you…”

***

On the way home today I saw someone wearing a Visit Rwanda shirt and couldn’t tell if it was dark satire or if they had actually been to Rwanda (for non-UK readers, the British government is going to be deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda, beginning tomorrow, to widespread dismay and bewilderment).

Tremor and Procrastination

I felt low on waking and exhausted from yesterday, which I guess was not surprising (work, online shiur and long call with E late at night). I had a dental check-up, which did at least get me up and out the house. I had some tremor, not very bad and the dentist didn’t say anything, but I felt self-conscious. I think it’s mostly psychological now, I get so worried about shaking that I sort of overthink it and shake. It happens whenever I need to hold still: doctors check-ups, dentists, opticians. I’m OK when my Mum cuts my hair, perhaps because I’m relaxed. I don’t know what I would be like going back to a professional barber; I haven’t done that since lockdown. I shake sometimes when taking photos too and especially when my photo is taken. I’m not sure what I can do about it at this stage. I distracted myself thinking up a whole silly joke about Boris Johnson in the wake of the “Partygate” report: during lockdown, the Prime Minister was ambushed by a cake, surprised by a leaving party, confused by a works-drinks event, and misled by a small bar mitzvah. Boris Johnson denied having an aliyah at the later, but later ITV published photos of him doing petichah. The Prime Minister denied having deceived the public, claiming that, “Everyone knows that a weekday petichah isn’t a proper aliyah.” (Sorry, no time to explain all of this if you don’t get it!)

When I got back, I spent a while procrastinating about phoning the Jewish mental health charity to see if they can help with my disrupted sleep, which may or may not be mental health-related. I eventually found the courage to phone, only to discover their referrals process is automated, so I just had to speak to a non-scary answerphone. I also emailed a contact at a charity that deals with autism support to see if they can help. I don’t know if I will qualify for help from either. I feel I fall a bit between two (or more) stools on this; it may be autistic exhaustion; it may be social anxiety and avoidance; it may be medication side-effects; or it may be something else entirely. It is hard to know who to ask for help. I got an email back from the second charity and I think the person was a bit confused as to why I was writing to her. Maybe I didn’t stress that it might be autistic exhaustion enough.

I spent some time working on my novel, finishing the first draft of the first chapter. I probably shouldn’t show my work to anyone at this stage, but I was worried that my plans for this novel just won’t work (in terms of what I said the other day about wanting to be honest and not prudish, but also not pornographic), so I sent it to E, who fortunately liked it and felt it worked.

I did a little bit of Torah study. I would have liked to have done more, but I procrastinated too much and ran out of time. In the evening, my parents and I went to my sister and brother-in-law’s for dinner. I tried to do some more Torah study in the car, but started to feel travel sick. I used to be able to read in cars without a problem, but don’t seem to be able to do it any more. I can still read on trains, but buses can go either way, I’m not sure why.

I wanted to write about my anxiety about getting married — not the decision to get married, but my fear that something will go wrong and prevent us getting married at all. However, it’s very late and I have work tomorrow, so that will have to wait for another time.

Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow

My shul (synagogue) is meeting in an cramped classroom (apparently — I haven’t actually seen it) some way away from my parents’ house for the next six months. As a result, I decided I would rather go to my parents’ shul this week. It was a bit surprising. There were more people there than attended my shul even pre-COVID, but the room is large and it didn’t feel over-crowded. There was more background noise than in my shul, the noise of a large crowd of people, but also some talking, which we don’t get at my shul, but there was no real clapping or thumping tables and I felt less overwhelmed than I have done in my shul for a while. This is possibly an indication that the United Synagogue has more to offer me than I thought, although the issues around the chazzan (cantor) and choir would emerge if I went more often (I dislike chazzanut (cantorial singing) as well as choral singing, and the chazzan at my parents’ shul is controversial even among people who do like chazzanut as he tends to drag things out with his singing). My ideal shul is probably some non-existent unicorn shul (a shul that exists no more than unicorns do, not a shul for unicorns to go to).

I did some Torah study over Shabbat, but slept too much. After lunch, I felt so tired that I had to lie down. I knew I should drink coffee and try to stay awake, but bed was too inviting. I don’t know how well I’ll sleep tonight, and I will lose an hour as the clocks go forward.

***

We turned on the news after Shabbat to see President Biden giving a speech that would have been denounced by the Left as “Fascist” and “warmongering” if delivered by George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. I say this not to take sides, but just to point out another example of how topsy-turvy politics in the West in general and the USA in particular have become over the last ten years or so.

I sought refuge from The World in Pigs Have Wings, the P. G. Wodehouse novel I’m currently reading. It is about as far from the real world as you can get. It’s so light, it threatens to float towards the ceiling if you let go of it.

I was imagining it taking place in the inter-war era, but, checking the copyright page, I found it was first published in 1952. I always imagine Wodehouse as inter-war, but he started writing over a decade before World War I and continued into the 1970s. I think most people would associate him and his books with the high society of the twenties and thirties, regardless of when they actually appeared. It’s similar with Agatha Christie, who did indeed start writing in the twenties, but was also writing well into the seventies, but somehow carries the atmosphere and outlook of the the twenties and thirties into her later works so that they seem earlier.

***

I was sufficiently awake tonight from sleeping in the afternoon that I did half an hour of late-night novel writing. It wasn’t terribly productive, but it was something. My parents were actually asking me questions about my novels on Friday night. They asked about my finished novel and I struggled to explain what it is about. I think one failing of that novel is that I can’t really summarise it in one sentence. What editors and publishers refer to as a “logline pitch” (for reasons I do not understand). I said something about it being about an autistic young man in the frum community, trying to downplay the autobiographical aspects, which I’m now a bit worried about. I’m bad about talking about (a) myself, (b) things I’ve done and (c) things that matter to me at the best of times (except to E, strangely), so it is hard to cope with these questions.

Then my parents asked about the novel I just started writing: what was that one about? “You don’t want to know,” was all I could say. I couldn’t face discussing pornography-addicted rabbis with my parents at the Shabbat dinner table, not without advanced warning. I do think that, if I want to become a writer, and if I carry on writing in this vein, I’m going to need to do some careful thinking about talking to people about my writing. I don’t mean agents, editors and reviewers, but family, friends and other shul-goers. What I’ve written and planned so far is… not what people might expect me to write about.

***

I feel that I’m torn between part of me that feels the urge to Do Things and to be busy and productive all the time (as some commenters here have noticed), and another part that likes time to do nothing and think and contemplate and be mindful of the world. It is good to have time for that on Shabbat at least, without work, TV or internet.

In his book Yeshiva Days, anthropologist Jonathan Boyarin tries to present yeshiva (rabbinic seminary) study as anti-capitalist, because it’s done for no material reward. I think, like a lot of critics of capitalism, Boyarin misses the point that capitalism isn’t about money, but about utility, defined in economic terms as “the ability to satisfy want.” Yeshiva study seeks to maximise utility in the Next World (afterlife) by building up the biggest possible Heavenly reward through the most valuable action (in Yeshivish theology), studying Torah. It simply replaces earning money in this world with earning spiritual reward in the next. That is sort-of anti-capitalist, but not exactly.

I feel like I could present a theory of why I increasingly like wasting time, not doing much, and thinking about things that would explain it in capitalist or religious terms. I could say that it gives me time to think about topics I would like to write about, and get paid to write about (please God, one day…). Also, that taking time to let my thoughts percolate is when I have interesting insights in Jewish topics, so that it can be seen as Torah study. I’m not sure how much either of these theories are true, however. I think I just find the pace of the modern world overwhelming and seek escape (although it often involves escape into thoughts about the world that I am trying to escape). In this I am like many autistic people, and probably many non-autistic people. I just like to retreat into myself rather than external distractions (although I do that too). I do often feel guilty though, that I should be earning money and/or doing religiously-valuable tasks, or at least writing, and trying to sell, novels.

Not Quite Trivial

I wrote the post below yesterday and didn’t post it, because I thought it was too trivial, but in retrospect, it does capture a couple of aspects of how I feel right now that are worth sharing:

I struggled to get up at 6.30am for the third day in a row this morning and even went back to bed for a few minutes after breakfast, something I don’t usually do on work days. This suggests that maybe I’m not ready to work four days a week.

Work was dull, but OK. I went on a small shopping trip after work that mostly ended in failure (one of the shops I wanted to go to was shut and I ended up with only one of the four items I wanted). I had hoped to work on my novel when I got home, although I was wary of whether that would lead to burnout tomorrow. However, by the time I had waded through blog comment notifications, job emails, other emails, forum posts and a couple of blog posts, I was too tired and it was too late. I need a better way of handling this. Or a secretary. And that was without looking at news sites (although I did glance at one of the Jewish newspapers, which is as depressing as usual).

I would like to avoid the news entirely, but (a) that seems irresponsible; (b) that’s pretty much impossible if you have an inquiring mind and an internet connection; (c) that seems self-defeating when I am still thinking of writing a satirical novel at some point — satire needs raw material. So, I tentatively look at a few sites and try not to get too dragged in. Likewise, if I want to use the autism forum as a way of communicating with other autistics and building some kind of support framework, then I need to read and comment on the forum. I can’t just expect to post when I have a problem and get lots of understanding responses if I don’t support others.

That said, I do think I am struggling to engage with people on the autism forum and I’m not sure why. I haven’t really had the type of conversations I hoped I could have on it. It’s more one person posts a problem and other people post one-off responses with solutions or empathy, not one person posts something and starts a wide-ranging conversation. And some people don’t respond at all, which makes me wonder if I’ve said the wrong thing. Interestingly, there seem to be as many or even more women on the forum than men, which is against stereotype — although maybe not so much. The traditional stereotype was that only men were autistic; it is now known that women are autistic too, but are often more creative and less stereotypically “autistic” (obsessively interested in numbers and mechanical things, difficulty communicating, unable to mask, few displays of emotion) than men, so maybe they are more inclined to communicate emotionally in writing, or at all. I tend to connect more with what the women write than many of the men, which again is unsurprising as I tend to present more like a female autistic.

(Last paragraph added today.)

(End of post from yesterday)

Today I slept late, probably inevitably after such a busy few days. I helped Dad move stuff around from the fridges to begin Pesach (Passover) preparations and went out to buy Mum flowers for Mother’s Day. I even had a little time to work on my novel. I only managed about twenty minutes between the other tasks and the usual pre-Shabbat (Sabbath) chores, and Shabbat still starting not long after 6.00pm, but I think I need to focus on this kind of ‘micro-writing’ (maybe at the expense of blogging and blog commenting) if I’m to make any progress at all with my new novel in the next month, the busiest time of the Jewish year (the month before Pesach). I wrote nearly 300 words. Probably not great words, and some will probably be deleted at some point but at least I’m no longer presented with the dreaded blank sheet of paper.

In Lieu of Ranting

I struggled to sleep last night, despite being exhausted. There’s definitely something about work nights at the moment that stops me sleeping. Am I unconsciously anxious?

I did get some sleep, more than on Sunday night, which was good, as I was in the office by myself most of the morning and had to do the Very Scary Task. This is becoming marginally less scary with time, but I still spent much of the day in a state of anxiety, and worried that one person I have to deal with is always annoyed with me. He doesn’t get angry, but patiently explains that he’s busy, or I’m not prepared properly, or whatever it is, which in some ways is more upsetting.

***

Yesterday I mentioned in a comment that in the years when my mental health was bad, I felt that all my problems would somehow resolve themselves at once, like falling dominoes, or not at all. The reality, of course, is that they do not resolve themselves all at once. The psychiatrist and psychotherapist Robin Skynner said that changing your life is like steering an oil tanker: you pull the steering wheel down as far as it will go and twenty minutes later it moves slightly to the right (I’m not sure if the metaphor was original to him).

My last year and a bit has been good. I got a job, got an autism diagnosis, broke up with someone who wasn’t right for me (and recognised that she wasn’t right for me first), got back together with E, got engaged to E and had my job made permanent. That’s quite a lot for about sixteen months. Yet somehow I want things to happen even faster. I doubt I could cope if they did go any faster.

***

I read a scary article about sensitivity readers today. If I hadn’t been at work, I would have ranted about it, but I was at work, and now I’m too tired, so no rant, and no lengthy quotations from Orwell about the totalitarian dangers of trying to recreate society on the basis of Rationality or Love. Certainly sensitivity readers come from the good place of wanting not to offend or stereotype people, but inevitably the people who volunteer for this type of work are likely to be people who value holding the right political opinions ahead of literary quality, and who have the mindset of approaching a text looking for all the ways they could find it offensive (and the hermeneutic of suspicion means that everything can be deemed offensive if you only look hard enough).

I get annoyed at the way Jews are presented in fiction, yet I’ve seen other Jews be trigger-happy, in my opinion, about finding offence in the presentation of Jews too. It’s a tightrope to walk and I can see that some writers want some help. And writers have always done research, asked people who have “lived experience” (I have mixed feelings about that phrase) for advice before applying their imagination to their research, with the caveat that no one person’s lived experience can speak for an entire community. The problem is when the tail wags the dog and the sensitivity reader starts making literary decisions.

I worry that my writing (the novel I’ve written and the ones I want to write) would fail the sensitivity reader test that might be applied to it if I find a publisher. I do not represent all Jews, or all autistic people, or all autistic Jews. That is, I would say, one of the main strengths of my novel: it is atypical. There is a saying in the autistic community that, “If you’ve met one autistic person, then you’ve met one autistic person.” Doubtless we could extend that to one black person, one lesbian, one transwoman and so on. No individual can speak for an entire community, and thinking they can is just another form of stereotyping.

I wrote about abuse without having been abused, from having listened to abuse survivors and read their accounts. Nevertheless, there was one element in that part of the story that I was concerned about, but kept in because I felt the plot development needed it. I’m pretty sure a sensitivity reader like the ones in the article would pick up on it as a negative trope and tell me to remove it, but I would only do that if I could think of a better way to achieve that plot development instead (I can’t), otherwise the book would suffer a literary deficit. Novels must function as novels and not just as a window into the life of another person, important though that is.

Given the type of stories I want to write, I find the notion of sensitivity readers troubling. David posted recently about being accused of antisemitism in his writing, even though he’s Jewish, and proudly so. Once we go down the route of inspecting everything forensically before publication, that’s where we’ll all end up. I could definitely see people seeing the books I want to write as somehow antisemitic, not to mention anti-many other things. It’s a product of wanting to tell bold stories about unusual people, to write things that have a unique identity and are not bland, inoffensive waffle. That’s before we even get into my identity as someone who is an Orthodox Jew, a Zionist and a small-c conservative (Sammy Davies Jr. used to talk about his multiple identity as a black person, a Puerto Rican and a Jew: “When I move into an area, I bury it!” I suspect my multiple identity would cause sensitivity readers to want to bury me, even before they read a word I have written). If nothing else, it seems like another major obstacle to get over to get my writing published and read.

“And I would fly 3,400 miles…”

I passed my pre-flight COVID antigen test, so I’m officially able to fly to New York tomorrow! I’m largely packed, except for some things that have to go in at the last minute. Today was largely taken up with the antigen test, scanning COVID-related documents for travel, and checking in. Everything seems to take so long, doubly so with COVID.

Looking at American money is exciting, although the coins and notes seem less interesting than British ones. The coins are all circular, and almost all the pictures are of former Presidents (and Alexander Hamilton). We have writers, scientists and social reformers on ours, plus Winston Churchill. Although with American coins, you can at least speculate on who will be cancelled next (Andrew Jackson is my guess, although James Polk is a possibility too).

I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to blog over the next week and a bit. If I do, it will be on my phone, so I’ll probably have to keep it short and there will may be more typos.

***

I finished reading The Impossible Office? The History of the British Prime Minister, in time to read something lighter (in all senses of the term) on holiday. It was good, but sometimes awkwardly written, perhaps a result of being credited to “Anthony Seldon with Jonathan Meakin and Illias Thomas”, which made me wonder how it was written, if Seldon did the writing and Meakin and Thomas extra research. It did feel a bit ‘written by committee’ in places.

The book ends with a rather bleak assessment of Prime Ministerial job and life prospects after leaving power. In Britain, with no maximum term limits, Prime Ministers usually leave involuntarily, rejected by the electorate, deposed by their own party, or suffering from serious and sometimes fatal illness. The book states:

The job should carry a health warning. Seven have died in office, and five dead [sic] within a year of leaving, with a further three within three years. Within ten years, half were dead. Given how young many were, it’s not a great prospect. Remarkably few achieve what they hoped. Most leave involuntarily… Many experienced pain earlier in their lives: one study suggests two thirds in office between 1812 and 1940 lost a parent in childhood, and asks whether their quest for power and prestige was motivated by protection against emptiness and insignificance. (p. 335)

Seldon goes on to list Prime Ministers who lost children, particularly during the World Wars (Herbert Asquith lost his son in the First World War, a war he had taken the country into), but also to AIDS. Several had children who developed addiction or serious mental illness. Despite infant mortality being low these days, two twenty-first century Prime Ministers, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, lost children in infancy.

It’s sobering stuff. I’ve long thought that the way that terms like ‘privilege’ are bandied about these days ignores the myriad ways that people can suffer and endure pain, not all of which can easily be given politicised labels or filed away neatly.

Still Drained

I slept through the morning again. Looking at my energy accounting record for yesterday, I was running a deficit again yesterday. I didn’t do a huge amount, but I didn’t do much relaxation either. I did a bit before bed, but that was probably too late at night, when I should really have been asleep. I do need to be online less and doing things that actually relax me.

I struggled through the day with low energy and mood, trying to do things. I went for a walk and wrote a devar Torah (Torah thought) that was nowhere near as good as I thought it would be when I had the idea for it a few weeks ago, and wrote some important emails. The other achievements were Mum cutting my hair and my checking which museums that I want to visit in New York are closed because of COVID. The Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace seems to be the only museum that is actually shut, perhaps because of the difficulty of socially distancing in an old house, but most of the other museums require, or at least recommend, advance ticket purchases, so E and I will have to plan which days we intend to go to which places. I feel a bit daunted, as I have no idea how my mood and energy levels will be, so planning days in advance seems like giving hostages to fortune, as if COVID hadn’t done enough of that already.

I didn’t do much else. My mood was brought down further by something family-related that happened that I don’t really want to go into here.

***

At the back of my mind all day was the ongoing Downing Street party scandal. I wrote two paragraphs about that yesterday and deleted them, telling myself it was too political for a blog that I try to keep apolitical. But I keep thinking about it and wondering if it would have happened whatever party was in power. There’s no way of telling, but I currently have a low opinion of all of them parties, and have done since about 2017. And weren’t there civil servants at this party as well as Conservatives? It’s all just sickening. The anarchist doctrine of “Don’t vote, it only encourages them” sometimes seems very true.

Monsters: Anxious, Insomniac, Green-Eyed and Antisemitic

At shul (synagogue) yesterday evening, they announced my engagement to E. Quite a few people wished me mazal tov and several wanted to talk a bit about E and me. Only one person seemed too inquisitive and unwilling to heed my hints that I didn’t want to talk about particular things (in this case, why E will probably be moving here rather than me moving to the US), which was probably a minor miracle, as people can sometimes be nosy. I think I was even a little bit pleased at the attention, although it did bring back some anxiety.

I was drained all day, but shul finished me off. I didn’t manage to do much Torah study in the evening, although I did a little.

I was pretty anxious over Shabbat, partly because of this, but also because I know E is struggling with anxiety too and it’s really hard not being able to be present physically for her. Over Shabbat I can’t even text or Skype. I just want to give her a hug! I decided that I want to go to the US as soon as possible in the new year. I was planning on going in January or February, but now I want to do it as early as possible (or safe). Unfortunately, the COVID news is not good. Today the Mayor of London declared COVID in London to be a “major incident,” (a term usually reserved for terrorist attacks) and the Netherlands went back into lockdown. A post-Christmas lockdown in the UK and/or US looks pretty likely, sadly, so I’ve no idea when I’ll be able to go to the States.

(As an aside, I feel like we’re only going to get out of this COVID situation with mandatory vaccinations to ensure herd immunity. I’m triple vaxxed, but I’m wary of giving any government that much control over people’s bodies. But the alternative seems to be endless lockdowns. COVID feels more and more like one of those horror film franchises that goes on until everyone’s sick of it (literally)).

Going back to Friday, I dozed after dinner, which was probably a mistake, as I had insomnia when I went to bed later. I had finished reading Gaudy Night and started People Love Dead Jews by Dara Horn. It’s a well-written, but depressing book about Jews and non-Jews. It’s about antisemitism, but also other ways people look at Jews. For example, the first chapter sees Anne Frank as being presented by the world as an innocent uniquely empowered to grant absolution to the non-Jewish world (Horn explicitly draws the parallel with Jesus) rather than engaging with her story and the complexities of her life and what she would have experienced in the death camps (the diary stops before then). She compares Anne Frank’s diary with diaries and memoirs written inside the death camps or afterwards by survivors which are more brutal in their lack of redemption, but which are not as well-known.

This essay reminded me of something I’ve thought of myself. As Horn says, most people have never met a Jew. This is pretty much inevitable given the small Jewish global population and the fact that it’s concentrated in just a few places. People think about Jews using the images in the wider culture, and with Jews I feel the religious imagery of Jesus and Judas as the most prominent Jews in the Christian story is very powerful, even in post-Christian Europe. The expectation is that Jews should be morally perfect and all-forgiving (again, see Anne Frank). If not, we must be the worst of all possible people. It’s very black and white. This turns up in the media a lot, news media and fiction (it appears several times in the works of John le Carre, for example).

I did feel some envy for Dara Horn, who seems to have the life as an academic and writer that I would have liked. It’s a futile thing to think about, but it’s there. I wonder what I would want more, the kudos of being an acclaimed writer, or simply the financial security it would bring E and me? Anyway, I try not to think like this, but it’s hard not to sometimes.

When Dara Horn got too depressing, I switched to Batman (Batman: The Dark Knight Detective Volume 5). I go in and out of Batman phases. I think relatively few Batman stories conform to what I want from a Batman story, which is primarily deduction, rather than endless fight scenes. These stories were woke, or the nineties equivalent thereof. I don’t really see a problem with being anti-pollution or in favour of helping disadvantaged schoolchildren, but a Batman story is a pretty blunt instrument to use to get that moral across, particularly when you only have twenty-two pages to do that and tell a story.

I did eventually fall asleep last night. Today I was drained. I skipped shul (synagogue) and shiur (religious class). I just didn’t feel up to it. I dozed in the afternoon, which was probably a bad move. Since then I’ve been doing the usual post-Shabbat tidying chores and other chores, as well as some Torah study. I Skyped E briefly, to check in with her and just to connect, really.

***

I still feel overwhelmed by everything that is going on in my life. I feel like I’ve been falling between two stools, sometimes trying to do too much and staying up late to do it, other times trying to get up early and get an earlier start on my days, but not really managing either of these consistently, and being burnt out too much of the time. I want to set myself a challenge of getting to bed earlier and getting up earlier, or at least trying to do so, but it’s hard to go to bed with so many things to do. I feel desperate to start work on my novel in earnest, and my Torah study seems to have dropped from about an hour a day to half an hour. Not for the first time, I feel like my religious life is bedieved, Hebrew for ‘after the event’ meaning, you shouldn’t do this in the first instance, but if you did it accidentally, it’s OK after the event. I would like to be living a more ideal religious life, but it doesn’t seem to be possible.

***

My therapist suggested trying some affirmations to stay focused on the here and now and avoid drifting into anxiety. I have had mixed results with these in the past. Years ago I had an occupational therapist (through a Jewish mental health charity) who printed and laminated some cards with affirmations for me. I tried to find them, but the only ones I found were “People have learnt from me” and “I am a well-respected person.” I’m not sure whether the second one is even true, and the first seems oddly specific, but maybe I need to have something specific rather than a general “I am worth it” statement that feels empty and meaningless.

Put Your ******* iPhone Down and Listen to Me

I overslept today. I think my clock radio alarms (plural) didn’t go off. Luckily, I set another alarm, on my phone on the other side of the room (in case I turn off the clock radio alarms in my sleep as often happens). I rushed to get ready, but was slightly late leaving, although I got to work at a reasonable time. I’m slightly concerned that this may change if Transport for London goes into administration soon, as may happen. I think there’s currently a game of chicken going on between the Mayor of London and central government, particularly the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is refusing to give any more money after having already given a lot. The computerised destination boards at the station weren’t working today and haven’t been for some weeks now and I wonder if they have been deliberately left unfixed as ‘leverage.’ The staff don’t announce which trains are leaving from which platform; you really have to take a train, hope it’s the next one leaving and then check when you get to the next station to see if it’s going on the right branch (the station is the end of the line, so all the trains are going south, but the line splits into two branches further down).

***

At work I was phoned by the autism hospital who said I’m on the list to be screened to see if I can have autism-approved CBT. The person who phoned me reassured me that, for people diagnosed by the hospital (as I was), screening is usually just a formality. Less reassuring was the next bit: being approved would lead to my case being sent to the CCG to get funding. If I get that, then I get on the waiting list — which is currently running with a thirty to thirty-six month wait! I’m sure this has been worsened by COVID, but it’s pretty horrific. I’m not 100% sure that the three years (or whatever) only starts at that late point. It’s possible that I misunderstood and have already started the three year wait. However, with the NHS it’s usually best to assume the worst-possible outcome (and lower expectations from there).

Between the NHS and the Tube, it’s tempting to say something about underfunded public corporations, and whether they could be fixed by spending sprees or privatisation or re-nationalisation of the already-privatised bits… I no longer know or care what the solution is, I just wish someone could SORT THINGS OUT.

***

I used my SAD light box at work. I felt a bit self-conscious with it, but I don’t really get time to use it at home on work days, and on non-work days I wake up late and am wary of using it late in case it stops me sleeping later. I’m still not sure it does much when I do use it. I didn’t feel depressed after using it today, but by evening I was utterly exhausted, the type of exhaustion I get from being autistically overloaded, and I struggled to really focus on things. I wanted to get away from the computer because computer stimulation doesn’t help when I feel like this, but also wanted to Skype E and to write this, both of which involve being on the computer.

I did skype E in the end, and it was good, despite some depressing topics of conversation (the likelihood of another COVID lockdown and the difficulty of raising children in an era of social media and online bullying). Speaking to E revives me rather than depleting me, which is good.

***

I’ve had a bit of reversal of my thoughts about the United Synagogue and potentially rejoining a US shul (synagogue) at some point in the future. I have nearly finished Rabbi Sacks and the Community We Built Together, which reprints some chapters from an (I think) out-of-print book by Rabbi Lord Sacks, where, to my surprise, the former head of the United Synagogue says that he never liked it growing up and only became a regular participant at a US shul when he became the rabbi of one. There are plenty of Haredi rabbis with communities in the US that would clearly never daven there if it wasn’t their job to do so, but I saw Rabbi Sacks as a solid US man. His reasons for disliking the US are similar to mine: US shuls are too large, too anonymous and too focused on the rabbi and the chazan (cantor) doing things and everyone else spectating. I’d add a lack of commitment to meaningful prayer and Torah study on behalf of many of the congregants and also chazanim who rush through the silent prayers and then drag out the prayers that they get to sing, even though the silent prayers are more important.

Rabbi Sacks’ change of mind came about when he realised that the US is essentially the only place in the whole world where shomer mitzvot Jews (Jews who keep the commandments) and non-shomer mitzvot Jews meet as equals in a religious context. He sees it as a fundamentally inclusive organisation (in a passage written long before “inclusive” became an over-used buzzword) that allows for growth through example as well as overt preaching.

So that made me wonder if maybe I have things to offer in such a situation, whereas I feel I don’t in an shomer mitzvot-Jews-only type of shul. A couple of blogs I follow have been writing about whether it’s better to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond. I tried to be a small fish in a big pond in many situations from university onwards, and I’m not sure where it got me. My biggest triumphs were mostly when I was a big fish in a small pond. I know Pirkei Avot says to be the tail of a lion rather than the head of a fox, but Pirkei Avot is unique in Talmudic literature in that it is seen as good advice rather than strict law; it’s not such a problem to decide it doesn’t apply to a particular situation (and it has various internal contradictions that we don’t try to iron out the way we do with other volumes of Talmud).

***

The Jewish website I applied to write for has clarified that they do want to publish the article I sent them (the one that has already been published elsewhere), but that they won’t pay me for it as they don’t pay for reprints. This does not encourage me to exert myself to investigate the copyright/reprint situation, bearing in mind I felt burnt out this evening, even though they want to post it next week. They did say I could pitch articles to them in the future and that they pay for articles, all of which is positive, although I’m not quite sure why they didn’t pay for my first article. Was it simply because I didn’t ask?

***

I should say something about COVID, but I don’t have anything to say except that I think we’re headed for another lockdown, I worry that we’re going to vaccinate enough people to get herd immunity without mandatory vaccinations (which make me uncomfortable even though I’m pro-vaccine) and that, unless we have a frank and taboo-busting discussion about exactly how many additional deaths we’re willing to accept per year in return for not living like prisoners and not letting our children grow up traumatised and uneducated, we’re going to be stuck here forever. Deaths per day in the UK are much lower than in the early days of the pandemic and in the peak earlier this year (after the bungled lockdowns around last Christmas). I feel there is a point where the costs of further lockdowns outweigh the benefits, but I’m not an epidemiologist or a medical statistician and feel inadequate to having an informed discussion without some help from government and media figures who don’t seem to want to have the conversation. At some point COVID is going to have to be treated like flu or pneumonia, a hazard of life that we take some precautions against, treat and take seriously, but don’t bend our society out of shape to avoid. I’m not sure what that point is, but we need to start discussing it rationally without people saying that one COVID death is too many or alternatively that the pandemic is a hoax.

***

Listening to A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, an album by Sparks from 2020 that I got for Chanukah the other day. It’s very good. I’m not sure what it means that the song that resonated most with me so far is iPhone with its refrain, “Put your ******* iPhone down and listen to me.” So true, sadly. Although maybe I’m just fixated on iPhones to avoid thinking about all the various awful things I’ve mentioned in this post that I can do nothing about.

A Conscientious Objector in the Culture Wars

I had a not-very-good-but-not-very-bad day leading to an exhausted evening. But in the back of my head all day was stuff triggered by the news, and I want to talk about that instead.

I do increasingly feel that we live in a world of lies (olam shel sheker is the Hebrew term, with mystical overtones, but I can use it quite literally). It used to be that politicians of different stripes shared the same values even if they disagreed on the means to attain them, and journalists felt an obligation to report the truth even if it reflected badly on “their” side. There was a time when the impartiality of the BBC was a real thing. Now we’re fragmented into little statelets of like-minded people, in a state of perpetual war with people whose worldviews are incompatible with our own. Even if we wanted to get along, we don’t see the world in the same way (sometimes in a profoundly metaphysical sense e.g. debates around abortion and euthanasia that revolve around the definition of ‘life’). We forget that ‘my opinion’ and ‘my narrative’ is not the same as objective truth (which only God has direct access to).

Note that I am using the first person plural. I want to be a conscientious objector in the culture wars, but people keep pressing guns into my hands, and I do not always get rid of them in time.

Philip K. Dick asked, “How does one fashion a book of resistance, a book of truth in an empire of falsehood, or a book of rectitude in an empire of vicious lies? How does one do this right in front of the enemy?” This is what we must learn to do, those of us who have to write. We must learn to tell the truth. Inevitably, we can only tell the truth as we see it, but we must tell it as we really see it, not as we think we see it or as we want to see it, not as the politicians, journalists, NGOs, etc. want us to see it, even if we lose friends, even if we get ‘cancelled,’ even if we lose our own beliefs in the process. As George Orwell said, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

Blood Test Manoeuvres in the Dark

I had a blood test today at 11.20am. I booked it for earlier than usual (I would normally go for the afternoon) to force myself to get up earlier and get more out of the day. I did struggle to get up on time, and went back to bed for a while after I got home.

The blood test was in a room where the lights were off and the blinds half-drawn. I’m guessing the phlebotamist had a headache rather than there being some problem with the lights, but this is the NHS, so who knows? I was a little nervous of someone sticking needles in me in poor light. At least I didn’t seem to shake much, or maybe the phlebotamist didn’t notice in the dark.

More NHS fun: I phoned the autism hospital in the afternoon to try to find out what my GP needs to do to refer me for autism-adapted CBT, but there was no answer. I left a message, but am not hopeful of getting a response.

Other than that, my main task for today was to fill in registration forms for a job agency. I’ve been with them for a number of years, but apparently it’s been so long that I need to register again. This probably reflects badly on my ability to find permanent work, although I suppose it reflects equally badly on their ability to find permanent work for me.

That was very boring and I got sidetracked into reading politics stuff online, which initially reinforced the curmudgeonly feelings I had woken up with, but eventually turned into guilt and self-disgust for bothering to read this stuff. Honestly, I’d rather avoid politics. Sometimes I feel like I’m overwhelmed by political opinions and unable to process them rationally in the time available, so I swing into sudden anger or impulsive policy decisions that I disagree with later. Structural changes in journalism due to technological and social change, including the advent of social media, seem to have had a negative affect on the mainstream media, making it less researched and more clickbaity, less focused on telling us what happened and more focused on telling us what to think (or rather, feel) about what happened. I’m aware that this is not an original perspective by any means, and that it might even be a product of the situation it describes, which is a scary thought.

Even so, the banality of politics continues to annoy me. The local Labour Party sent a flier through the door the other day promising a “Stronger Future Together”. I’m not sure how the future can be stronger (or weaker, for that matter). Not that the Conservatives are any better, somehow winning a landslide with the vapid “Build Back Better” slogan in the last general election. You can take alliteration too far. Still, someone must have liked it, as Joe Biden stole it for his presidential campaign the next year. (Not the first time Biden has borrowed from British politicians. He withdrew from the Democratic primary race in 1987 partly for having plagiarised a famous speech by then Labour leader Neil Kinnock.)

(Don’t take the above paragraph too seriously, I’m just feeling cynical today.)

My mood did pick up after a while, although I wish I had not wasted so much time today as there was more I wanted to do.

I did work on my devar Torah for the week, but I struggled to find the source I wanted. I have a book called The Encyclopedia of Biblical Personalities. The name is somewhat misleading, as it mostly lists Midrashic (rabbinic) material on biblical characters rather than summarising the biblical narrative. It is a useful way of finding rabbinic perspectives on particular figures or locating specific Midrashim (rabbinic expansions of the biblical story), but I like to try and check the sources in full, as sometimes the passages are highly edited. However, I could not find the source even in Hebrew on online Jewish library Sefaria. This may be because the referencing in the book wasn’t accurate. I can use the source as quoted in the Encyclopedia, but I do feel vaguely guilty about doing so.

I think the devar Torah was OK though. This is a part of it:

There are a number of Hasidic tales that have a similar structure whereby a Hasid wants God to grant him wealth or health, not for its own sake, but so that he can study and pray more. However, the Rebbe tells him that God does not want his prayer, study or service, but rather He wants the struggle the Hasid has to endure, and the sighs that he makes, in his effort to serve God while still living as a human being with a need for sustenance and health.

I’ve written things along these lines, about God wanting effort rather than achievement, a number of times in my divrei Torah. I really hope I can start believing it!

“O my prophetic soul”

Shabbat (the Sabbath) in the winter feels very different to Shabbat in the summer. It’s more of a struggle to get to shul in the winter, for one thing, although I somehow made it yesterday afternoon despite feeling exhausted. It was very crowded as we had a guest speaker. The singing and clapping felt like a wall of sound falling on me, but I coped. The drasha (religious talk) with a guest speaker was OK, but not amazing. I was worried there would be dancing, but there wasn’t, perhaps because the hall was full.

My parents were out for dinner so I ate alone and read my recently-purchased Doctor Who Magazine back-issue. I did some Torah study and recreational reading, probably too much of the former considering what E said. I have to shamefully admit I internalised her suggestion that I try to read more for fun instead of Torah study as another “Should” and promptly ignored it anyway. That said, I went to bed late because I was reading for fun, a story that turned out to be a ghost story with a dark ending (The Muldoon), probably not the best thing to read late at night. It was very well-written though and probably the best story so far in People of the Book (I only have one story left). There was one character, a young boy, who seemed to be high functioning autistic, although he wasn’t explicitly identified as such. The passage that resonated the most said, “‘Your brother’s only going to love a few people,’ my mother had told me once, after he’d slammed the door to his room in my face for the thousandth time so he could work on his chemistry set or read Ovid aloud to himself without me bothering him. ‘You’ll be one of them.‘” I feel like I owe my family an apology…

I slept late again today, got through lunch, then felt tired and went back to bed for a bit. Talmud shiur (religious class) restarted today and I could have finished lunch, rushed through Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and seudah (the third Shabbat meal) and gone to it, but I just felt too drained. Instead I lay in bed (awake), davened Minchah, ate seudah and went back to bed again (again not sleeping). I did some Torah study after Shabbat finished and skyped my rabbi mentor.

***

The twenty-five year old back-issue of Doctor Who Magazine I’m reading is from July 1996, the month of my bar mitzvah. It is much better-preserved than most of my DWMs from that period or later. I suppose on some level I’ve always seen books and magazines as things to live with and wear to pieces from love, or maybe I’m just careless for a librarian.

1996 seems a lifetime ago, and also yesterday. The issue is the tribute issue for Jon Pertwee, the third Doctor (1970-74), who had died earlier in the year. It also had the first lot of letters about the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie, which was broadcast in May. I haven’t read them properly yet, but I think they’re mostly positive. I’m not sure if there was censorship. I hated the TV Movie, which set a precedent for hating a lot of new Doctor Who in subsequent years, but in recent years I’ve gown more fond of it as a weird experiment and costly folly, and I was a bit annoyed that I couldn’t find the time to watch it with E when she was here as I had wanted.

***

Suzanne wrote about her modest dreams of a quiet autistic life seeming unachievable. I commented, “I feel similarly. I don’t have very ambitious fantasies (not quite the same as yours, but similar), but the cost of housing in the UK makes it hard. I’m thinking a lot about this as E and I try to work out a possible future together, but it’s hard, particularly not being able to hold down a full-time job. And then we would want to live in a reasonably large Jewish community which, in the UK at any rate, means living in very specific (not cheap) parts of London or possibly Manchester. It is difficult.”

It is hard. I’m not really anti-capitalist, although I am opposed to both monopoly capitalism and consumerism, but I think there is some kind of major socio-political upheaval starting, partly from technological change (social media), but also from a cost of living crisis for many people, particularly in terms of affordable housing. Not that I think the woke or populist figures have a better solution than the existing neo-liberal ones; I feel that if there is a solution, it’s not one anyone’s found until now.

***

I’m slightly in two minds about posting this, but here goes. I’ve been thinking, on and off, for some time now about writing about my afterlife beliefs here. I think they’re pretty Orthodox Jewish, but it’s hard to be sure as, even in the frum world, we don’t really talk about the afterlife much, particularly compared with Christianity and Islam, especially the fundamentalist varieties of both. It’s not a superstitious thing, Judaism is just a very present-centred religion. Contrary to Karl Marx (“the opium of the masses”), Judaism sees a divine mandate to focus on ending suffering in this world rather than seeing the next world as a consolation (although it is one).

I’ve been reading the essays at the back of Divrei Hayamim II: II Chronicles: A New Translation with a Commentary Anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic Sources, translation and commentary by Rabbi Moshe Eisemann. It’s an Artscroll book. Artscroll are a US Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) publishers noted these days for toeing the Haredi party line and avoiding anything remotely controversial, but I’ve found this book to be a bit more sophisticated than the stereotype, a bit more willing to push the boundaries a bit further than I expected Artscroll to do.

On page 361, I came across the following:

In the thought-world of the Sages, the World to Come is not a location, nor is it a time-frame. It is within every man. It is the deepest essence of his being, the spark of the Divine which defines him as an image of God, and which in normal circumstances remains inviolate and therefore indestructible in the face of sin. It is the locus of the ultimate mystery of life, where transience touches immortality. It is axiomatic in Rabbinic thought that sin my sully but never destroy that essential inner core of immortality; excepting only in the dreadful state which the Sages give the name of losing one’s portion in the World to Come.

This didn’t tell me much I didn’t already believe, but I think it sums up what I feel quite pithily and beautifully. That said, I’ve never really been sure of the boundaries of “losing one’s portion in the World to Come.” At school we were told it’s pretty much impossible to do that these days, although I’ve never been sure of how this was known and what the boundaries of “these days” is, nor whether it is only Jews who can’t lose their portion in the World to Come; I’m pretty sure none of my Jewish Studies teachers would have claimed that Saddam Hussein (to pick a prominent antisemite of my teenage years) has a portion in the World to Come. I am a little surprised to note that the Artscroll passage does at least speaks of the World to Come being within “every man” (read person; the book was published before sensitivity to gender in writing); I find frum Jews often seem to think on some level (possibly not entirely consciously) that the World to Come is primarily for Jews, even though the rabbinic sources say otherwise.

Stress, and Political Narratives

I haven’t posted for a couple of days as not much happened. I’m trying to reduce my blogging. I started this blog as a mental health blog, and it became an autism blog. I feel that, as my mental health has improved (although it’s not perfect) and I’m getting more used to my autism diagnosis and what autistic life means for me, there is less to say, albeit with the caveat that whenever I’ve spoken about blogging less in the past, something has happened to push me back towards it.

Certainly today was a bit of a mental health-straining day. I woke up just before 7.00am. I lay in bed wondering whether I should get up, as I’m trying to force myself to get up if I wake up early (not with much success so far). Then I started thinking about E’s trip to the UK and got into a complete panic about whether we had booked the right COVID tests for her. It took me half an hour of searching online to confirm that we had booked the right tests. By that stage, I thought I should stay up. I had breakfast, but went back to bed afterwards, probably because I was still overwhelmed with anxiety that I had not discharged. Inevitably, I fell asleep again and woke up late. Then when I was davening (praying), I had intrusive OCD-type thoughts, albeit not with OCD levels of anxiety, but still some anxiety. I hope I’ll feel better once E is actually here safely.

At lunch time one of the circuit breakers went and kept switching off whenever we reset it, but we couldn’t see why. Then, a few hours later, we found a leak in the garage, which has probably got into the electrics somewhere. As a result, we’re going to have a plumber and an electrician here later in the week, which is not ideal consider E is staying with us, but there isn’t much we can do about it.

Other than that, things were pretty good. I gave my bedroom a thorough dust before E comes to stay, I did some Torah study and went for a run. I got an exercise headache again, but I did have the best pace I’d measured since May.

***

I’ve nearly finished The Righteous Mind. Jonathan Haidt argues that, “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor. Everyone loves a good story; every culture bathes its children in stories.” He quotes the psychologist Dan McAdams that people create “life narratives” to understand their lives. The narratives may not be objectively true, or at least not entirely, but that isn’t really the point. The point is to shape an understanding of the self and the world. Haidt brings this to explain why people who are predisposed to one sort of political worldview by genes or upbringing (yes, our political views are partly genetic, he argues) can end up with a very different worldview in the end, influenced by the narrative they create to explain their world.

This made a lot of sense to me, and helped me to understand the way my political views have evolved over time, particularly the way I started somewhat left-of-centre (probably in part because of my family and friends), but increasingly felt that “people like me” were not welcome on the left and drifted rightwards, even though I don’t strongly identify with all conservative ideas and especially conservative attitudes and parties, including on Haidt’s multi-polar six ‘flavour’ model of morality.

On a non-political level, it underlined to me that my improved mood in the last eight months or so is at least partly from having my autism diagnosis, which enabled me to create a new narrative about myself, one where I no longer perceive myself as a person repeatedly failing at simple tasks for no obvious reason, but as an autistic person doing my best with tasks that are not always suited for me. I think that more than anything has stopped me drifting back into depression (well, that and E).

That said, I think Haidt perhaps focuses a little too much on politics as ideology or values rather than pragmatic factors. I feel strongly about caring for other people (which Haidt sees as something liberals feel more than conservatives, although he says conservatives do feel it), it’s just that my experience of the NHS and the benefits system led me to believe that the state is often inefficient and even counter-productive when it tries to help people.

***

Ashley was asking how people chose their blog names and I thought some people here might like to see what I responded (slightly amended from what I posted there):

“Vision of the Night” is a quote from Job. I wanted to write a Jewish mental health blog (having blogged about mental health in a not very Jewish way previously) and was looking for something biblical and somewhat depressed-sounding, but not taken by other people. This was what I ended up with.

I find thinking of titles generally hard and titles for blogs more so (I mean the title of the blog, not the particular post). My most obscure blog title was one of my Doctor Who blogs, which was called “From Lime Grove to Beyond the Sun” which is a very obscure Doctor Who reference, Lime Grove Studios being where the earliest episodes of Doctor Who were filmed, and Beyond the Sun being an abandoned title for the story fans refer to as The Daleks. I think it sounds quite good as a title.

In case that wasn’t crazy enough, it had a subtitle for a while, “The blog for fans of Cliff, Lola, Biddy and the older man with a character twist” (the idea was I would change the subtitle periodically to something funny). Doctor Who doesn’t feature anyone called Cliff, Lola or Biddy. They were suggestions for characters in the early proposals and story guides from before the series was filmed; by the time of transmission, they had become Ian, Barbara, Susan as well as the Doctor (older man with character twist). I think I was trying to reach out to the cognoscenti, but it didn’t really work. I see it as very much part of my mindset of trying to write stuff that could have been in Doctor Who Magazine in the late nineties rather than what was actually going on in fandom at the time when the series had been revived and had suddenly become popular with people who were only vaguely aware that it had a history before 2005, let alone shown the obsessive background knowledge developed by fans who were around for the wilderness years when it wasn’t on TV.

Spiritual Experiences, Conformity, and Autism in the Workplace

I couldn’t sleep last night, which perhaps was inevitable after sleeping so much during the day (even if it was Yom Kippur) and having an evening that was not-brilliant from a sleep hygiene point of view. I just have to deal with it now. I lay in bed resting for a while and got up around 5.45am to eat breakfast. I had therapy at 10.30am, so trying to sleep through the morning wasn’t an option. I napped for an hour and a half before therapy, which was probably a good thing even if it meant I wasn’t fully present in therapy.

Therapy was good. We spoke a bit about my frustration at not having intense religious experiences on festivals. I mentioned that my rabbi mentor said that probably most people were not having them, whatever the Jewish websites say. I also reflected that I do have some religious experiences, sometimes, as I think happened on Wednesday evening at shul (synagogue) and I shouldn’t discount them just because they are fleeting and/or inchoate and hard to put into words afterwards. I also feel that Shabbat is a time when I’m less distracted by social anxiety in shul and anxiety over ritual than on festivals and that I do have spiritual experiences on Shabbat more frequently as a result, and that I could be more accepting of them, but also unconsciously discounting them. One of the things I want to work on about myself this Jewish year is being more “present in the moment” and not worrying about the future or focusing on abstract thoughts. I think this openness to fleeting, inchoate spiritual experiences is something I can work on in this area too.

***

When I couldn’t sleep, I finished skim-reading the autism memoir I’ve been reading. The main thing I take away from it is that it’s important to ask for adjustments if you want to get them, as people aren’t psychic and often don’t know much about autism. I can see that it will be hard for me to learn this lesson, as I was diagnosed relatively late in life (thirty-seven) and have spent most of my life being told to “force myself” to do things that I don’t feel I can’t do because “everyone else can do them.” My mentality (probably for psychological and religious reasons as well as experiential ones) is indeed to try to force myself to do things and hope they will become easier with practice. Some of the things the author got adjustments to avoid doing (such as making phone calls) are things I struggle with, but “force myself” to do with a lot of anxiety and internal resistance.

Also, in my current office set-up it’s just me and J, so if I can’t do something, I’m putting it all on him, which is uncomfortable. I’m mostly OK with what I have to do (my occasional absent-minded incompetence aside), aside from the Very Scary Task and one or two other things. J usually handles the Very Scary Task that unless he really can’t. It’s basically our core task, and it has to be dealt with quickly for halakhic (Jewish law) and other reasons and it is basically a mitzvah (religious commandment), all of which make it hard for me to back out of it. On which note, I may have to do it next Thursday, when J will be at a theme park with his family on Chol HaMoed (the semi-festive middle days of the festival of Sukkot, when the work restrictions are looser than on the other days). The unpredictability of when I have to do the VST is another issue, and, again, unchangeable given the nature of the task (which I don’t want to go into here).

The author of the book is also a lot more obviously autistic and in many ways less functional than me, although sometimes I feel that I’ve spent so long masking, I’m not sure I can do it much longer. It makes me feel that I “should” be able to cope better. If she can hold down a full-time job, I should be able to too, if I’m not so autistic. But it doesn’t really work that way, especially if you don’t have the fortunate autistic ‘good at numbers’ gift as she does.

***

I helped Dad put up more of the sukkah. Dad and I putting up the sukkah, or doing any DIY really, is worryingly like Laurel and Hardy (or the Chuckle Brothers, depending on what your comedy frame of reference is). I worry how I could put up a sukkah by myself, even a (supposedly) easy-to-assemble one like ours. More worries for the future.

Aside from that, I spent forty-five minutes or so finishing the first draft of the short story I was writing. I’m glad to have made progress on it.

***

Reading Ashley’s post on conformity, I commented:

I find it hard to tell how influenced by conformity I am. I pretty much always feel ‘different’ in a social group, but I’m not sure how much I am different or how much it’s just my perception. Maybe on some level I want to feel like a non-conformist.

I certainly have beliefs and practices that are different to my religious community, but I’m not sure whether there’s any pluralistic ignorance going on (thanks for the term!).

Politically, I’ve shifted quite a bit from where I was brought up. I have friends across the political spectrum, but my more political friends are the ones most different to me. But mostly I keep quiet about politics, even more so than religion, to avoid that kind of trouble.
I do feel that in politics, like religion, I don’t really fit in one ‘box’, but, again, that could be more my self-perception.

I do find it very hard to disagree with people to their face, though, even if I disagree strongly in my head, even on trivial things like whether I enjoyed a particular film or book. I don’t often leave disagreeing blog comments; I would more likely walk away from a situation like that unless I felt extremely strongly or felt very secure in my relationship with that person.

Thinking about this after posting, I can see that not being authentic in my social interactions and fearing rejection would be stressful, particularly as authenticity is an important value for me that I am often not observing. However, I also feel that hiding my opinions has let me have a wider friendship network than many people have, in the era of social media echo chambers, not in terms of absolute numbers, but in terms of the diversity of the views they hold.

The Moments of Labouring are the Moments of Finding

I spent a lot of the day feeling down and vaguely depressed (not really in the clinical sense). Out walking, I gave way to depressive thoughts about politics and the state of the world, COVID and Afghanistan. On the one hand, who would have thought two years ago that the most divisive political question of the age would be, not Trump or Brexit, but vaccinations? And who would have thought the ending of the perpetual war in Afghanistan would be the source of so much misery? The latter bringing back comparisons with Vietnam.

I had a whole tirade in my head about Vietnam, Robert McNamara and technocratic government (the RAND Corporation etc.) and mission creep arguing against technocracy and big government versus COVID and vaccines arguing for it. I won’t go into the whole thing, as I suspect it’s not that coherent now I can set it out in black and white.

Suffice to say that I feel we’re in a double bind, morally bound to try to intervene in the world to improve it, but intellectually unable to do so in a safe and successful way (Hayek’s “Fatal Conceit,” the mistake belief that limited human intelligence and knowledge can change the world for the better). I am cursed to have the ethics of a moderate liberal and the intellect of a Burkean conservative: I think we should make the world better, but I don’t believe we have the ability to do so, except in incremental ways.

Anyway, I can’t work out if I’m vaguely depressed because the world is depressing, or I feel the world is depressing because I’m vaguely depressed. If the latter, why am I depressed (again, not in the clinical sense)? Am I just stressed after a difficult fortnight at work and looming religious festivals?

***

Other than that, I emailed the Maudsley Hospital to try to find out about my referral for autism-adapted CBT. (If anything is an argument in favour of Hayek and against technocracy, it’s NHS bureaucracy.) I wrote my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week, unusually before reading the sedra (Torah portion), as the idea for what to write hit me suddenly on Friday night. I’d like to write one for next week this week too, as next Tuesday and Wednesday, when I usually write, will be Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). However, I’m now working over the next two days (which is a whole story in itself, but I’m too tired now), so I’m not sure how I’ll fit it in.

I tried to go to an online discussion on Sefaria’s YouTube channel, where Dr Erica Brown was talking about her book for this time of the Jewish year, Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe, which I recently purchased. The discussion was marred by connection problems (at the speakers’ end) and after a quarter of an hour, it suddenly stopped, apparently abandoned by Sefaria, which was disappointing. They have apparently now recorded the interview and posted it as an ordinary YouTube video, so I’ll have to try to watch that at some point.

In the evening I Skyped E and had a discussion with my parents about some family stuff that is not for here. I feel vaguely anxious again, not quite as bad as I used to feel on Sunday evenings when I was at school, when I was dreading the week ahead, but was not sufficiently in touch with my emotions to realise that I felt like that, but still apprehensive of the week ahead.

***

I had been looking for a particular quote recently and suddenly came across it last week and wanted to blog it, but hadn’t had the chance. The quote is from the nineteenth century Hasidic rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (the Kotzker Rebbe), but he is elucidating a passage in the Talmud. The Talmud (Megillah 6b) says, “Rabbi Yitzḥak said in the style of a previous passage: If a person says to you: I have labored and not found success, do not believe him. Similarly, if he says to you: I have not labored but nevertheless I have found success, do not believe him. If, however, he says to you: I have labored and I have found success, believe him.” (Translation from sefaria.org; bold indicates words literally in the original, ordinary font indicates words added in translation to elucidate). This passage raises a question, assuming we are talking about success in religious life (faith and Torah knowledge), as some people do genuinely search for God and Torah and not find them, and the Talmud seems to blame them for not trying hard enough.

The Kotzker says, “If you have laboured, even if you have not found, do not believe that you have not found. For the moments of labouring, they are the moments of finding. The search for knowledge, it itself is knowledge.” (The Sayings of Menahem Mendel of Kotsk edited Simcha Raz p.119) This opens the door to the concept of those who are ‘unconsciously religious,’ who live meaningful lives outside of organised religion or belief, yet touching on the transcendent and the kind. Moreover, it sees the religious life as an ongoing search or quest throughout life, not a matter that is easily settled one way or another, forever.

I find this attitude helpful because it moves the focus on the religious life from the end itself to the process towards that end, from actually being close to God constantly to the desire and attempt to be close to God. It moves it from the rare and ephemeral moments of connection to the attempt to achieve those moments in the midst of mundane events and activities. Likewise it can be read as being about religious study, about trying to understand rather than attaining understanding. In short, it means that Jewish achievement is about the effort to be Jewish rather than assuming that only perfect faith or superficial religious observance are the only signs of religious achievement.

It is a proto-existentialist attitude. Attitudes like this in his teachings mark the Kotzker as perhaps the first modern, Orthodox (not “Modern Orthodox”!) Jewish thinker, not in the sense of more Westernised nineteenth century figures like Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann who combined Torah knowledge with secular university studies and awareness of wider trends in Western theology and Bible criticism, but rather “modern” in the sense of wrestling with existential doubt and a sense of human insignificance and the search for individuality and authenticity. (The key text here is A Passion for Truth, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s comparative study of the Kotzker and his contemporary Soren Kierkegaard, the first Christian existentialist.)

My Name is Luftmentsch

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

(Not) Bad Day

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Busy Weekend

The last few days have been busy. I went to shul (synagogue). I felt thrown, and I don’t know why. Our rabbi was away, which I knew, although had forgotten, but another rabbi was there, a rather prestigious one who I thought had moved out of the area. I don’t know if it was an autistic thing, being thrown by a small change in plan, or my usual self-esteem issues, feeling that he could sense that I wasn’t frum (religious) “enough” somehow (from my non-white shirt?), even though he had his back to me for most of the service, but I felt awkward the whole time I was there. When I got home, I found myself sniping at my parents over dinner even though there was no good reason for that. Plus, I found myself overly-focused on an ongoing argument in the Anglo-Jewish community and wanting to write an angry letter to the Jewish Chronicle (which so far I have not done).

I woke up about 7.30am on Saturday morning. I should really have got up so I could go to shul, even though it was a little early, but I stayed in bed and wanted to fall asleep again and miss shul, which is what happened. I’m not sure why I felt like that, if it was a reaction to the previous evening. I did go to shul later, for Minchah (Afternoon Service) and Talmud shiur (religious class), which I followed a bit better than usual.

Today I overslept a bit and had to rush to get ready for dinner at my sister and brother-in-law’s house with them, my parents, my brother-in-law’s parents and his sister. It was inside, and technically an illegal number of people, which I felt bad about, but I also felt that I really had to go, particularly as they had got vegetarian food for me. I enjoyed it, but by 4.00pm, I was completely peopled out and spent the last hour or so catching up with blogs on my phone (I hadn’t really been online since Friday afternoon), even though I would normally consider it rude to sit at the table engrossed in my phone when everyone else is talking.

Other than that, I’ve just been depressed by reading about the Batley and Spen by-election, which seems to have had a lot of anti-Israel sentiment, alongside anti-Indian and anti-LGBT sentiment. Any election with George Galloway’s name on the ballot is going to involve a lot of excrement-throwing, but this seems particularly bad. Lots of traditional Labour voters were abstaining and I can’t say I blame them. Politics is too depressing for words at the moment.

I did manage to read most (although not quite all) of this week’s super-long double Torah portion today and still went for a run (I had a slight headache afterwards), so I guess it’s been a reasonably good and certainly very busy weekend. It’s not surprising I’m a little exhausted and in need of Doctor Who!

“Je suis Marxiste, tendence Groucho”

I had a feeling today of not fitting in anywhere. It’s a feeling I often get, but today I was pulled in a lot of different directions: by the high street (increasingly woke, but still consumerist, somehow), by blogs, by The Jewish Review of Books. Pulled in different directions by different visions of politics and lifestyles and Judaisms most of which I am unable to assent to. Experiencing so many so rapidly was uncomfortable.

I distinctly remember years ago a discussion on Hevria.com where a former ba’al teshuva (person raised secular who became religious — in this case before returning to secularism) argued that ba’alei teshuva (plural of ba’al teshuva) are “sold a bill of goods” by kiruv rabbis (“outreach” rabbis who try to get secular Jews to become religious). If I understand the American idiom correctly, this may well be true, at least in some cases, but it avoids looking at the bill of goods sold to all of us by mainstream society — and, indeed, by its more usual counter-cultures (Orthodox Judaism is a counter-culture, just not a very popular or highly regarded one).

I try not to get upset by people’s political, religious and “lifestyle” choices. We all have blind spots and biases in our worldviews and we all have to get along together somehow. I was a bit shocked today to see someone I regard as level-headed and a critical thinker acting in a less than critical way to assent to a political proposition I regarded as question-begging (not necessarily untrue, just in need of more serious examination). I didn’t say anything, and I don’t know if that was the right decision. I doubtless have my own biases and blind spots, and I worry sometimes about the things I’m unaware that I’m wrong about, as well as my “unknown unknowns.” Ultimately, the mystics and rationalists agree that the only thing that we know is that we do not know.

Possibly, like Groucho Marx, I refuse to belong to a club that will have me as a member. At least with E I can be a misfit club of two now instead of one. It is strange and surprisingly comfortable to find someone who agrees with me on a lot of stuff, big as well as small.

***

My sister and brother-in-law came for dinner in the garden with me and my parents. It was good, but I tend to drift in and out of the conversation, and also to feel inadequate that my sister and BIL have their own careers and house and other things I work part-time and live with my parents. I think about this every time I see them, which isn’t healthy. I realised after everyone had gone that I forgot to share my news, such as it is, that things are still looking hopeful (although not certain) for my job being made permanent and my friend reviewing my Doctor Who book in a fanzine that may lead to a few more sales.

I also had one of my occasional “can not get filled up” evenings and ended up eating kosher pot noodle in addition to real food, and then eating too much Ben & Jerry’s ice cream with dessert.

***

I feel pretty shattered now after work and socialising (plus shopping and Torah study), and possibly coming down from an ice cream sugar high (curse you “Ben and Jerry” (OK, Unilever) with your facile politics and your addictive flavours!). I’m going to watch Babylon 5 and then Doctor Who “with” E. To be honest, if “fitting in to a community” means watching Doctor Who with E, then for the first time in my life, I think I can manage it.

Knots

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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