Today was a difficult Shabbat (Sabbath) because of the heat. I went to shul (synagogue) on Friday night, but not today, as it was too hot and Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) were at an awkward time. I fell asleep quite quickly last night, but woke up in the early hours and struggled to get back to sleep, probably because of the heat. I think I woke a couple of times in the night gasping for breath again, although I’m not sure how many times or whether it’s happening more often or I’m just paying attention to it now I think I may have sleep apnoea rather than thinking I must have just woken up from a nightmare or similar.
I did some Torah study, including some Talmud study, and a little recreational reading, but it was too hot to do much of anything really. I ended up sleeping in the afternoon despite not wanting to because the heat made me so drowsy.
I can’t believe my civil marriage is in under three weeks (God willing)! I am nervous, but more about travelling alone, which I’ve only done twice before, than about the wedding itself. The fears that something would go wrong and E and I would be stuck in engaged or semi-married (civil wedding, but not religious wedding) limbo indefinitely seems to have gone away. Now there’s some nervousness about all the paperwork (civil and religious) this is going to take, as well as house-hunting and organising the religious wedding.
We want a very small party, although we’re still not sure how many people. E would like to do just close family. For a while I wanted some close friends and a couple of more distant cousins I see frequently, but now I’m wondering if close family (counting first cousins, and one or two extras, like my rabbi mentor) might be better. I’m worried about getting autistically exhausted for days afterwards if I invite too many people, and it’s easier to say ‘No friends’ than to decide who can and can’t come, especially as, realistically, I think some of my closest friends won’t be able to make it. I worry that all my parents’ friends are expecting to be invited to a Big Fat Jewish Wedding like my sister had, and like their children had, and invited my parents to. Reciprocity can be a tricky thing. My biggest worry is that I would like a quorum at the party for shevah brachot (wedding blessings) and I don’t think we’re going to get that with a very small guest list.
By this stage, after having dated on and off since 2018, and having been together continuously since May of last year, but having only spent a total of a couple of weeks together in person, E and I just want to be married. We are hoping to be married by next Pesach (April 2022), but I’m worried that we won’t manage it. We can’t submit E’s spouse visa application until after the civil wedding (29 August) and it will take about six months, unless things have improved at the Home Office. The last we heard, things were delayed as the Home Office struggled to deal with Ukrainian refugees. That takes us up to the end of February, not leaving much time for organising the wedding and finding somewhere to live, not to mention stocking a new kitchen (small party = few presents).
It is very frustrating being this far apart for so long, as well as not being able to live together (with everything that entails). It’s kind of embarrassing to say this, but I think it’s only now, age thirty-nine, that I’m ready to get married, or to have sex, not that I would have done one without the other. Sex in particular has been something I’ve struggled with for years in a way that is not really acceptable to talk about in either the frum (religious Jewish) world or the secular world, wanting to explore it, but being scared to do so as well as subject to religious prohibitions that generated guilt.
Being a virgin at thirty-nine isn’t particularly normal or acceptable in either community (frum or secular), the assumption being something must be wrong, whereas I think I just wasn’t ready and hadn’t been in the right relationship. I realise that my previous relationships (mostly just crushes; other than E, I’ve only had two real relationships) wouldn’t have worked, and I sort of intuitively feel that God was making me wait for the right time (and that therefore the religious wedding will come at the right time too), even though I didn’t believe it at the time. But now I’m ready… and we have to wait another six months or more.
I didn’t go to the dentist on Friday. About an hour before the appointment, the surgery rang to say the dentist had gone home ill. I’ve got another appointment booked for Tuesday. My wisdom tooth is not really painful, more uncomfortable at times, at least if I can avoid prodding it with my tongue (harder than you might think).
I didn’t intend to post tonight, but I had a difficult day and now I can’t sleep. The two may not be connected, but I thought it would be worth trying to get my thoughts in order.
Lunch was difficult. Angela wrote recently about the “identified patient” in a family and the way that can change and the different family members can affect one another. In my family, I’m pretty sure everyone thinks of me as the identified patient. I’ve been… let’s say not functioning as expected for about twenty years now, I have a neurological diagnosis that is never going to change (Asperger’s/autism) and mental health issues that have come and gone (or come and stayed in some cases). I’ve been in different types of talking therapy a lot. But I think other family members have their own issues, issues that they aren’t necessarily aware of or addressing. I guess owning up to a mental health issue is hard and counselling or therapy can be quite intense and painful, in terms of confronting the negative sides of your history and personality. But it’s hard when this impacts everyone else in the family.
I don’t really want to go into more detail about this. Part of me would like to in a password-protected post, but part of me is overwhelmed at the thought of writing so much of my life history and how it intertwines with those of my parents and sister, and I’m not sure it’s very ethical to tell people about the skeletons in my family’s closets. I’ve spoken to therapists about it in the past, but while I feel I understand the family dynamic, now and in the past, well, I don’t always feel able to move on from it. For now, suffice to say I left lunch feeling very overwhelmed and had what I think must be an autistic shutdown (it’s not always clear to me). I just lay on the bed for two hours. I don’t think I fell asleep, or not for long. I just lay still until I felt well enough to move again.
After that I tried to read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, but the description of loneliness was overwhelming too, and reminded me of how I used to be before E. I suppose I still am somewhat lonely; I don’t think E can/should be my only social contact, but I struggle to make friends I really connect with. My thoughts about starting online groups for autistic Jews or Jews on the fringes of the Orthodox community are as much for me as anyone else. I couldn’t face reading The Third Reich in Power, so I read The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy for a bit before shul (synagogue). I finished it, finally (it’s very short, but I was reading slowly). I still feel a bit that nearly forty is too old for me to learn to have sex, but I’m trying not to let that bother me. There was some stuff about dealing with guilt about previous sexual experiences (masturbation, not having kept the rules of shomer negiah (not touching before marriage)) that was somewhat helpful to me. But it does just remind me that we’re a long way from even knowing when our wedding will be.
After that I went to shul and ate seudah (the Shabbat third meal, which today was the last meal before the fast started — see below). I read Lamentations: Faith in a Turbulent World, which is also heavy-going. Most of the other books in the Koren Maggid Tanakh series have been organised on chunks of text, but this goes through Eichah (Lamentations) line by line, which is interesting in some ways, but very detailed. It gets quite draining quite quickly, and it’s a big book too (even though Eichah is one of the shorter books of Tanakh (Hebrew Bible).
Tisha B’Av (the Fast of Av) started at 8.39pm. This is the saddest day of Jewish year, when we mourn the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem and many, many, many bad things in Jewish history. It actually fell on Shabbat, but the holiness of Shabbat displaces it to Sunday, so to speak. Which means that it falls on 10 Av this year, which is my Hebrew birthday. I don’t make much of birthdays, and I celebrate my Gregorian calendar birthday anyway, but this is vaguely depressing.
I went to shul in the evening and found the service quite moving, which was good as I thought I was going to be too fed up from the day to get anything out of it. I came home and there wasn’t a lot to do, as we’re supposed to avoid anything fun on the fast, including Torah study (except sad bits like Eichah). I read the Lamentations book for a bit, then The Third Reich in Power, but decided to go to bed soon after. I couldn’t sleep though. I tried to sleep on one pillow rather than two, which is another mourning custom for the fast, but I couldn’t fall sleep. Then I tried with two pillows and still couldn’t sleep, so I’m now sitting on the floor (we sit on low chairs or the floor until midday tomorrow, another mourning custom) typing this and not feeling very tired.
Insomnia for me is often from not relaxing enough before bed. I didn’t really relax at all tonight. Normally I would read or watch something to relax myself, but I can’t really do that. Or I would drink hot chocolate, but I can’t do that either. I’m not supposed to fast given that I’m taking lithium, but I try to fast until midday as the afternoon is somewhat less sad. Technically the fast is an all or nothing thing and if I’m going to break it at lunchtime tomorrow (which I am going to do), I can break it now, but I like to keep at least some of the spirit of the day.
This was an interesting article about finding meaning on Tisha B’Av. I think a lot of it applies to Judaism in general for me. It can be hard to find the meaning in each specific mitzvah (commandment) or event; the meaning emerges from being part of the collective experience of a whole nation over three thousand years (how many people other than Jews have even the vaguest idea what their ancestors were doing three thousand years ago? Some, but not many). I probably do find more meaning in being Jewish as a totality across my whole life rather than in any particular mitzvah.
My mood has been somewhat low again. I’m not entirely sure why. My religious wedding to E seems as far off as ever, and the fact that we can’t even set a date yet (because of immigration bureaucracy uncertainty) makes it worse. The civil wedding is getting nearer (less than four weeks away), which is good, but that stokes travel anxiety. There’s a lot to do to get married (civil and religious) and that’s daunting, but we can’t really start on much of it, which is frustrating in a different way. Things might be easier next week, once we’re past Tisha B’Av and I can shave and listen to music again – it will just be easier to maintain a positive mood. As I’ve said before, Tisha B’Av always seems a daunting day in advance because pretty much anything even vaguely fun is forbidden (including Torah study and, ideally, work). It’s always a relief to get past it. My Dad says he’s struggling with no music too (and he’s shaving).
It doesn’t help that my wisdom tooth is still hurting, but I did eventually manage to get an appointment with the dentist for Friday afternoon, which was earlier than I hoped. I’m just using clove oil to dull the pain at the moment; thankfully it’s not bad enough to need actual painkillers.
E and I had a call with someone from the United Synagogue about pre-marriage classes. These will mainly be about the halakhot (laws) of what Orthodox people coyly refer to as “marital relations.” We can’t really move on with that until we’re further on with booking the chuppah (religious ceremony), which in turn we can’t do until we’ve had the civil ceremony and also got the American bet din (rabbinical court) to certify E as Jewish. It’s very frustrating.
Other than that, I did some Torah study, went for a walk and worked on my novel a bit, but it was hard to get motivated or to concentrate.
 Haredi comedian Ashley Blaker did a joke about Jewish punk rock band The Marital Relations Pistols.
I’m not sure if the next bit is 100% accurate, but E said I should post it anyway.
I am still thinking about people on the fringes of the frum (religious Jewish) world. I feel there ought to be some way to bring people together to support each other, if only virtually. E thinks a Facebook group would be a good idea. I’m not sure. You know my mixed feelings about Facebook, plus it’s hard to be anonymous on Facebook. I feel inadequate to do this, but I don’t know if anyone else will. I think there are online groups for people who are leaving or have left frumkeit, but few/none for those who want to stay, but need moral or practical support.
Yesterday I was listening to an Orthodox Conundrum episode with an anti-missionary rabbi. He said that Jews who convert to Christianity are likely to be survivors of some kind of trauma, abuse, addiction etc. I suspect this is probably true, although I disagreed about the wider conclusions he seemed to draw from this. The frum community tends to refer to these people as “at risk” (i.e. at risk of “going off the derekh” (path) and stopping being frum), which I find ridiculously offensive and stigmatising in itself (as is the phrase “off the derekh,” actually). Another Orthodox Conundrum podcast reflected that the Haredi community has a lot of support for the poor or sick, but often victim-blames abuse survivors who go to the police instead of supporting them.
It makes sense to me that the community needs to provide some kind of support to these people, rather than trying to deal with the consequences them after they’ve left the frum community/converted to Christianity/had an overdose/attempted suicide/become homeless etc.
There are Jewish organisations offering specific help to groups like the mentally ill or abuse survivors or whatever, but often this is not specifically for people in the frum community, but for all Jews, even though the sociological experience of being (for example) frum and depressed is different to the experience of being depressed outside the frum community; a Jewish agnostic with depression won’t necessarily understand the needs of frum person with depression. Even where people are offering support, it’s often practical support – which is good, but doesn’t necessarily deal with the loneliness of feeling on the fringes. I feel there should be some kind of non-judgmental social support for people who just don’t fit in as well as people with specific issues. My hypothesis, based on my own experiences, is that someone on the fringes of the community for one reason will understand someone on the fringes for another reason, at least to some extent.
There probably is more to say about this, but it’s late and I have to go to work tomorrow…
It’s the bit of summer when we get a heatwave in the UK and I feel too hot to go to bed, so I’m blogging, even though it’s nearly midnight (when I started. It’s nearly 1am now I’ve finished). It was a normal Shabbat (Sabbath) in terms of shul (synagogue) attendance, Torah study, walk and so on. I came back from Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) to find my parents in the garden with their friends. Their friends are very talkative and very loud, and the windows were all open because of the heat, so wherever I went in the house I had to listen to their conversation on health and the supposed inadequacies of the criminal justice system. (I wonder how expensive the penal system would be if we incarcerated every serious criminal literally for life as they seemed to want?) I tried to tune them out and read The Third Reich in Power, which isn’t the most cheerful read, but is interesting and engaging.
As well as reading about Nazis, I read a bit more of The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy. I can’t read more than a few pages at a time, as it inspires a whole mixture of emotions: excitement at marrying E; frustration that immigration delays mean we probably won’t be under the chuppah until March; perhaps some sadness that I’m coming to my sexuality so much later than most people; and especially anxiety that this is going to be another thing I’m not good at (these days, I basically feel that I’m good at writing and nothing else, although E says I do have other skills). It sounds so complicated and scary! I am reliably informed that birds do it, bees do and even educated fleas do it. No information about uneducated fleas, but uneducated humans seem to manage OK, but I wonder how sometimes. I think the authors are trying to be realistic and even somewhat reassuring that “It’s not like movies and TV,” but it seems to make it worse for me.
I probably shouldn’t have written recently about “anxiety” as it’s mostly apprehension rather than real anxiety. I guess I still haven’t really come to terms with the fact that I lost most of my life between the ages of about nineteen and thirty-seven to depression and/or autistic burnout, and that social anxiety has been an issue since a very young age. I still feel that if anything can go wrong in my life, it will, and that God wants to make me suffer as some kind of test of faith or behaviour. I have to remind myself of many things I have successfully achieved, even if some of them went wrong in the long run (nothing lasts forever), so that I feel that I will be able to achieve more things in the future. I have to try to tell myself that God wants more for me than simply enduring suffering. There’s no way to be sure that that’s true, of course, but if I tell myself I’m going to suffer forever, I probably will.
A thought I’ve been mulling over for the last few weeks (which I’m not going to source properly as I normally would do, because it’s nearly half past midnight. Anyway, I’ve seen most of this in the secondary literature, not the primary sources): the Torah in Beha’alotechah (the third Torah reading from Bamidbar (Numbers)) states that the Israelites were divided into four camps in the wilderness, and moved through the desert in strict order. The fourth camp was led by the Tribe of Dan, who are described as the “me’asef” of all the camps. Modern translations render me’asef as something like ‘rear guard,’ but the literal meaning is more like ‘gatherer’. This led to the interpretation of Rashi that the Tribe of Dan gathered any property left behind after the other camps moved on and restored it to its owners (I assume Rashi is basing himself on a Midrash; he usually does. EDIT: I just checked Sefaria and it’s from a comment in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) Eruvin). The Bekhor Shor goes further and says that Dan gathered in the people who were late and missed travelling with their own tribal camps.
Elsewhere there’s an idea that Dan was the lowest of the twelve tribes of Israel and the most prone to idolatry, probably based on the fact that they were the only tribe that never conquered their allotted land in Israel (on the coastal plain) and a chunk of the tribe went off north towards what’s now Lebanon to find other land. On the way they ended up finding and essentially stealing an idolatrous sanctuary (Shoftim/Judges). There is also Shimshon (Samson), virtually the only significant Danite in Tanakh, who feels more like a Greek hero than a Jewish one.
Putting these two ideas together, maybe there’s a sense that, to reach the people on the margins, the people who are in danger of getting left behind (literally and metaphorically), you have to be halfway towards getting left behind yourself. I won’t deny that this is a further attempt to think myself into a more positive view of my life story, my religiosity and my place in the Jewish community, to try make something good out of years of depression/burnout and religious and community engagement that is perhaps a lot less than might have been expected from someone like me (maybe. Sometimes I think I do a lot more than someone dealt this hand could really be expected to do. It’s hard to tell what is right). I would like to reach Jews who are in danger of being ‘left behind’ with my writing, although I only have the vaguest ideas of how, or what would happen afterwards.
News first, please scroll down if you just want the stuff on diversity.
The last few days have been busy, although there isn’t a huge amount out of the ordinary to note here.
I forgot to mention in my last post that on Wednesday we had a Zoom call involving myself, E, my parents and E’s parents. It went pretty well, especially considering I thought there were at least three cultural divides that might be difficult to bridge. The two sets of parents even want to Zoom again soon.
On Friday, as well as my normal pre-Shabbat (Sabbath) chores, I worked on my novel for an hour and a half. I would have liked to have worked on it even longer, but I was getting eye strain.
In shul (synagogue) on Friday night, Rabbi L came up to me and asked if we had made progress with the wedding, which was nice. Dad also told him about Mum’s recent health issue, which he was unaware of. He was shocked and concerned.
Shabbat was fairly good. I managed to avoid sleeping in the afternoon (although I did lie down for twenty minutes), going instead for a brisk walk and doing fifty minutes of Torah study. I went to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Service) only. I tried to get to bed soon after the end of Shabbat, but still ended up going to bed at 1am. It’s difficult when Shabbat doesn’t finish until after 10.30pm.
Today was a somewhat difficult day. I woke up late, feeling drained after the last couple of days and struggled to get going. Unfortunately, I had a lot to do, looking at flights and hotels for my trip to New York to have a civil wedding, which will allow E to apply for a UK spouse visa for our religious wedding. In addition, my sister and brother-in-law were here. In the event, I only had time to look at the hotels. I didn’t have time for a run, unfortunately, or to work on my novel. I guess the wedding is going to take a lot of time from my novel for the foreseeable future (just don’t ask what happens if I get accepted on the emerging writers’ programme tomorrow).
Today was a somewhat difficult day. I woke up late, feeling drained after the last couple of days and struggled to get going. Unfortunately, I had a lot to do, looking at flights and hotels for my trip to New York to have a civil wedding, which will allow E to apply for a UK spouse visa for our religious wedding. In addition, my sister and brother-in-law were here. In the event, I only had time to look at the hotels. I didn’t have time for a run, unfortunately, or to work on my novel. I guess the wedding is going to take a lot of time from my novel for the foreseeable future (just don’t ask what happens if I get accepted on the emerging writers’ programme tomorrow).
I somehow avoided eating rugelach when my sister and BIL were here. I am serious about losing some weight, despite the lack of time for running.
My sister and brother-in-law brought their wedding photo album. This has finally arrived, four and a half years after the wedding (Just. Don’t. Ask). It reminds me why I don’t like big parties, which I guess is good as E and I plan our small wedding.
My mood sank in the evening, under the weight of peopling and wedding planning. My Dad said he would do some searching for me tomorrow for plane fares, which will help me. I feel bad that when I’m struggling (like today), I find it hard to communicate with him for various reasons that aren’t really either of our faults, and we end up getting annoyed with each other.
(I should say that I didn’t have anywhere near as much time as I wanted to spend on the second half of the post, but I just want to vent about this anyway, even if it could be better written/argued.)
I’ve been thinking about a lot of things recently. One is about the trend towards greater diversity of representation in the media. This was partly prompted by the latest Doctor Who Magazine. The current Doctor is the first woman Doctor; her successor will be the first black Doctor, and there was recently an official Doctor Who podcast story written by a trans woman and starring a trans actress as a trans character. There was a lot in the article about the podcast about how good it is for LGBT people to see themselves represented positively. It made me think about the way I have seen myself in fiction, or not, over the years.
There is a bit more representation of autism than there used to be. I can think of The Imitation Game, which was a good film, although it left me very upset (it was one of the things that made me think I really am on the spectrum despite being initially assessed as neurotypical; it also made me feel I would be lonely and miserable forever as a result). On the other hand, I thought The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was a intent on making autistics look stupid and unfeeling, although the narrator was a lot less functional than I am.
There is some representation of secular Jews, mainly on American TV, where there are more Jews generally e.g. The West Wing. They aren’t allowed to show more than a little interest in Jewish ideas though. When The West Wing did an (unrealistic) plot-line about the President solving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Josh and Toby didn’t seem more emotionally involved than any of the other characters, despite being Jewish. The only real time Jewishness was involved in a substantial way was an episode about capital punishment, which had Toby’s rabbi argue against it. I didn’t really watch Friends, but several characters were Jewish, but not really Jewish. They were Jewish in a safe and non-threatening way, they didn’t do weird rituals (OK, the Chanukah Armadillo was weird, but that was deliberate).
Ivanova in Babylon 5 was not very religious either, but we saw her light Chanukah candles in one episode, and there was an episode that had a sub-plot about her sitting shivah for her late father, which was quite surprising in a secular science-fiction show.
Orthodox Jews are less prominent. They are usually shown as narrow-minded and backwards. (Incidentally, pretty much all Orthodox Jews on TV and film are Hasidic, even if this makes no sense.) The Attractive Young Rabbi was a Radio 4 sitcom about a female Reform rabbi living next-door to an Orthodox rabbi. I didn’t listen to more than a little bit of it, but I think the rabbis disagreed about everything, with the Orthodox rabbi presented to the audience as reactionary and wrong. I think his wife was more understanding because feminism or something. In reality, my oldest friend is the son of two Reform rabbis, male and female, who lived next-door to the local Orthodox rabbi, noted for being quite strict. My friend said they all got on well. I guess that makes for bad drama/comedy.
An exception was the 1970s Quatermass. Quatermass was a 1950s science fiction/horror series of serials. They revived it for a mini-series in the late 70s. There were a couple of Jewish characters in the 70s version. They mishandled pretty much every ritual and mispronounced every Yiddish word shown, but in a story built on binary divisions (young/old; superstition/science; irrationality/reason), they put Judaism on the science and reason team, for which I am grateful.
There are more representations of Judaism in novels now than previously e.g. Sisters of the Winter Wood. E has read more of these than I have, and finds the presentation of Orthodox culture variable.
I definitely think there is a problem that a significant minority of fictional Jews are in Holocaust stories, which does warp how both Jews and non-Jews see Jews past and present. There’s also an increasing tendency to universalise the Holocaust. Rather than seeing it as a specific crime directed at a specific culture because of a specific historical context, there’s a sense of “It could happen to anyone” and that (as Dara Horn argued in People Love Dead Jews), killing Jews is bad because it could lead on to normal people being killed too. As Horn argues, Holocaust fiction tends to focus on survivors, whereas the majority of Jews who were in the Holocaust were murdered. I think (although I haven’t done any real research) that Holocaust fiction also tends to focus on secular, westernised Jews from Western and Central Europe, rather than religious and Orthodox Eastern European Jews, even though the latter were again the majority of Holocaust victims..
I haven’t looked at other religions, but I think there’s a trend to see ‘open’ cultural expressions of religion as OK, but more traditional and more insular religious content as negative. Yaz in the last few seasons of Doctor Who is a Muslim, but she doesn’t do or believe much that’s religious, no mention of halal food and the only mention of prayer is in the context of her receiving Islamophobic insults on her way to the mosque. There is an episode about her grandmother marrying a Hindu with tragic consequences when her husband is killed by his fundamentalist brother. That there’s a type of religious identity that holds on to religious beliefs and practices strongly in a particularistic (non-syncretic) way, but which is open and tolerant towards the rest of the world isn’t really an idea that gets shown much.
The Doctor Who episode The God Complex did have a more religious and interesting Muslim character in Rita. It’s slightly weird that the Doctor Who character I connect with most religiously is a Muslim woman, which I guess gives the lie to the idea that we can only identify with people who are exact representations of ourselves.
Then there’s Zionists, who are increasingly only presented as racist land-grabbers who don’t belong in the Middle East. In America, I guess there are still some old-fashioned Mossad super-spies, like Ziva in NCIS. I’m going to leave this paragraph at that because I don’t want to get into an argument.
It also goes without saying that anyone even vaguely conservative on film or TV is absolutely Evil and usually in cahoots with Evil Big Business or Evil Religion (usually Christian or Jewish, sometimes Muslim). Big Business is always seen as conservative, even though in real-life many businesses are falling over themselves to be woke, particularly Big Tech, which is a big contributor to Democratic Party funds.
As for long-term celibates, don’t even bother looking. I was going to say that anyone celibate or sexually unsatisfied is likely to be either autistic, misogynistic, or an oppressed minority group in a conservative religious setting in need of liberation (woman, gay, etc.), but to be honest, I’m not sure if that’s even true. I think celibate people are pretty much not shown at all (I haven’t seen Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, but it sounds like it broadly fits the “sexist liberation” narrative).
Granted, this reflects my own weird interests and viewing patterns, which is mostly skewed to stuff from decades ago, but the impression I get from what I read and hear about modern shows is that these patterns still hold.
The thing I really want to stress is that I didn’t really care about this in the past. I assumed that Jews in particular were too small a population to really be noticed and didn’t object to their absence. Now the inattention of people very focused on representation (e.g. the makers of Doctor Who) makes me feel deliberately snubbed. I feel like there’s a list of “acceptable” identities in the Western media, and that most of the aspects of my identity aren’t on it, and in some cases are seen as primarily privileged and oppressive, which is not at all how I experience them. Now not being included seems like a calculated insult, which wasn’t the case twenty years ago. It feels like being a black trans lesbian is seen as normal or even praiseworthy, but being a celibate Orthodox Jew is something abnormal and shameful, and I’m not sure where that comes from or what we do about it, or how we can even label it ‘diversity.’
I didn’t really want to blog after the longest Shabbat of the year, but I had a pretty awful time and need to offload, so here goes. I had one of those days of autistic burnout that basically feel like depression, with no energy, low mood, and agitated and perhaps somewhat obsessive thoughts. I’ll go through what happened and then some of the thoughts.
I didn’t go to shul (synagogue) last night. I was just too physically drained to manage it. I had a lot of agitated thoughts all evening, including at dinner with my parents, which was uncomfortable and made it hard to concentrate. After dinner, I did Torah study for about forty minutes, reading two difficult chapters of Yehoshua (Joshua) listing Levitical cities, and the commentary on them in Rabbi Hattin’s commentary book. I am now through all the chapters that just the tribal boundaries in ancient Israel, which is a relief. Afterwards I was not sleepy and wanted to read something lighter than the book of contemporary Israeli writing that I’m sort of reading (where contemporary is circa 1973 as it’s an old, second-hand book), so decided on James Bond (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), which might not have been the best choice as the idea of dying as soon as you get married, or just before, ended up haunting my thoughts. I got to bed around 1.40am.
I woke up around 9.30am to go to the loo. I should have stayed up, but wanted the comfort of being wrapped in my weighted blanket and went back to bed, and to sleep. I got up at lunch time, which was bad. I went for a brisk walk for forty minutes after lunch, which was good (that I went), but struggled with agitated thoughts during it and afterwards. I tried to read some of The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy (more on that below), but it left me feeling anxious and depressed. I fell asleep for a while, despite drinking coffee. I’m not sure how long I slept for, as I was lying in bed thinking agitated thoughts for a while before I fell asleep.
On waking, I davened Minchah (said Afternoon Prayers). I had missed Minchah in shul and, anyway, I felt so low when I went for a walk that I didn’t really want to go out of my comfort zone (=house) again. In the summer, Jewish tradition is to read a chapter of Pirkei Avot (the volume of Talmud that deals with ethics) at Shabbat Minchah. Rather than just reading rapidly as I usually do, I spent twenty minutes studying somewhat more carefully, and a few things hit me that I had never really noticed before which helped my mood somewhat. It would take too long for me to explain them now (it was in chapter three). After that I did some other Talmud study for twenty minutes, then read James Bond again and got seudah (the third Shabbat meal) ready. I did struggle with that, as I didn’t really feel like ‘peopling’ with my parents, but I got through it, declined to play Scrabble afterwards and spent the remaining hour and a half of Shabbat reading Bond again and fighting some of my thoughts, finally feeling a bit better.
As for the anxious agitated thoughts themselves, a lot proceeded from something I read from therapist Elisheva Liss about narrative therapy, that we can rewrite the story of our life to change our mood and outlook and be less envious of other people’s skills and success. This appealed to me for several reasons. As a writer, this approach seemed more intuitive to me than other approaches such as CBT (for example). I had already noted that getting diagnosed with high functioning autism ended twenty years of depression by telling me that I am not an incompetent neurotypical who inexplicably can’t do basic things like use the phone and make small talk, but an autistic person who naturally struggles with these things.
Despite that change in outlook, recently I feel that I’ve been falling backwards, feeling myself useless especially in comparison to my (neurotypical) peers who have careers and families. I feel envious of people, envious of their happiness and their skills, not that I want to take anything from them, but to have things for myself, to have skills and a career, to marry E and for us to be OK financially, as well as to be able to have children with her and to have the energy and skills to raise them properly. Over Shabbat I felt negative about this, particularly worrying that some unforeseen obstacle will stop E and I marrying. This then bled into feelings that God hates me, that He sees me as sinful and wants to punish me, and that if things go well for me for a while, it’s just so it will hurt more when it all gets taken away from me again. I hadn’t had these thoughts for a long time, probably over a year, so it seemed like a backwards step.
Lately, I feel like I’m carrying a huge weight of the loneliness and depression that I struggled with for twenty or twenty-five years (maybe more), more than half my life. Just knowing, “Oh, I’m autistic, that’s why I struggle with work and relationships, that’s why I was bullied at school” doesn’t really feel enough any more. The suffering I endured brought me to E, but that feels like it can only be a part of the new narrative, not the entirety of it. I feel so overwhelmed by it still that I need to reshape my narrative (to use Liss’s terms) or (in more kabbalistic terms) to make a tikkun, to do something that will retroactively redeem my past and make it worthwhile, to convert the heavy weight I’m carrying into forward momentum. I hope my writing is at least a part of this, if I can help other people somehow (I’m not convinced I can help anyone, or that I will even get published, but that’s not my main concern right now).
I am thinking of buying Elisheva Liss’ book which apparently deals with narrative therapy at length. I am wary, though, as I wonder if I need to actually do something first before I can change the narrative, to create a new happy narrative. Also, I have a big stack of self-help books, most of which did not do much for me. Some were CBT books, and CBT does not work well for people on the spectrum (not that I knew that I was on the spectrum when I bought them). Beyond that, I suspect I need the accountability of a therapist to help me. I might raise some of the issues from this post with my own therapist on Wednesday and see where that takes me. (There are a couple of other self-help books I’m procrastinating about for the same reasons.)
I just feel so useless so much of the time, such a disappointment to other people, such a failure to achieve anything, and it feels like autism isn’t really enough of an excuse. I know E loves me, but I feel I should be a better husband to her, plus, as I said, when I feel down, it’s easy to get into a negative thought spiral about the United Synagogue not permitting our wedding or the Home Office rejecting her visa application.
The other train of negative thoughts came from reading, or trying to read, The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy by Jennie Rosenfeld and David S. Ribner. This is a sex manual designed for frum couples i.e. religious Jews who haven’t had sex before their wedding night. (The Hebrew title is Et Le’Ahov, which means Time to Love. That may be a better title even if it sounds like a cheap TV movie.) I bought this when E and I first dated, about four years ago. I started reading it to try to alleviate some of my anxieties about sex, but stopped reading when we broke up, as I was sceptical whether I would ever get to have sex. I didn’t dare to open it again when dating other women or even when dating E again until now. I guess I felt irrationally that it would somehow jinx things, or that God is waiting for me to get complacent enough to think that, one day, in middle age, I might actually be able to have sex, before He ruins everything for me again.
Now that, rationally, I know that E and I are probably going to get married some time in the next year, it seemed a good idea to read it, but I didn’t get far as it prompted a lot of anxious thoughts. Some of them were the “God will stop me getting married no matter what I do” type, but some were just the confusion and anxiety I get when thinking about sex generally. I guess celibacy and loneliness were a part of my life for so long that they became part of my identity. Not in a good way, but like being an orphan or having a disability.
I’m not sure where I go with this, except back to therapy. E and I did have a conversation a few days ago about sex and I do feel comfortable at the thought of having sex with her, it’s just that thinking about sex makes me feel that God will stop me, and that He wants to punish me for not being perfectly pure, and that somehow sex is just something not for me and there’s no way for me to change this.
Anyway, that’s how I’ve been for the last thirty hours or so. I actually feel OKish now. There’s some anxiety and low mood, but perhaps fewer agitated thoughts. I do mostly still feel that E and I will get married, although I’m still worried about being bowled more googlies on the way. But I do want to go to bed soon, albeit after watching The Simpson to try to relax a bit, even though it’s 1.00am (this took well over an hour to write).
 I should probably say that the thoughts weren’t as neat and packaged as they seem here. I flipped back and forth between different thoughts throughout the day, and they did slowly develop to get to their form here.
 I am awful at all sports, but the one thing I can do is bowl a mean googly at cricket. Improbably, I learnt it from a book, because I’m me.
It’s not actually raining. It might rain later, but it might not. The title is a quote from Shakespeare (Twelfth Night. I was props manager on a production when I was in the sixth form, in one of the few non-academic things I ever did as a teenager). It just sums up how I feel when I get sucked back into exhaustion and burnout, like I can never escape from feelings of exhaustion, low mood and general non-functionality.
I had a busy week and a very busy day yesterday. Yesterday I had work. The morning was spent on the usual paperwork and similar jobs, I spent my lunch break looking at pictures of wedding venues and spent much of the afternoon doing a boring cut-and-paste task, but was able to listen to podcasts while doing it. Surprisingly, I felt OK after work so I did Torah study on the commute home (usually I just do it on the commute to work in the morning), went shopping, went for a slightly longer walk home from the station, listened to Mum’s description of her awful day at length, and did some novel writing when I got home. Then I had dinner with my Mum and sister (Dad and brother-in-law being at cricket together), heard about Mum’s awful day at length again, and skyped E. Realistically, this was far too much for one day. In my defence, no one actually told me my sister was coming for dinner until I got home, otherwise I might have not done all these things. I could still have skipped writing, but by that stage, I had my mind set on it and it’s hard for autistic people to change plans.
(I also broke my diet by eating ice cream last night, as I needed some kind of treat.)
The result was massive exhaustion today. I slept too long, couldn’t get up, couldn’t get dressed once I did get up, missed the time for Shacharit (Morning Prayers) entirely and basically couldn’t start my day until the early afternoon. My main task for the day was to phone the United Synagogue again about E and my wedding issues, to find out if Rabbi B is away or how to get hold of him, but by the time I did it, I just got the answer phone. They probably leave early on Fridays. I intend to email Rabbi B again on Sunday so that, if he’s been away, my email is on the top of his pile on Monday morning. I think I need to be the squeaky wheel on this, which is not something that comes easily to me.
After lunch (and Doctor Who) I had a little more energy, so I did some of my usual Shabbat chores, then tried to write, as I had by this time brainpower, but not much physical energy for hoovering, the main task left to do for Shabbat. I figured that being drained, fed up and frustrated probably wasn’t a bad mood to be in for the book I’m writing. Even so, it was very difficult. I did manage to write for nearly an hour, and to write about 700 words, but it was difficult and I suspect many of those words will vanish in the editing.
I’m struggling with the idea of the “male gaze”. The novel is very “male gaze-y” — which is rather the point, as the protagonist is a pornography addict, and one of the themes of the book is the way pornography can rewire a person’s brain in that way, and another theme is the way religious sexual restrictions can make people more aware of sex rather than less , but I worry readers will see it as reflecting my viewpoint and not the character’s and mark me down accordingly. E says you can’t write a book without offending some people, which is probably true, and I probably underestimate readers, but I just worry about not getting published or read.
It’s weird to write it though. It’s getting in touch with a part of myself that I have always repressed and been ashamed of, the part that notices women, and it’s been strange to try to channel that deliberately. I would never normally write (of a man in a supermarket queue) that he was “trying to avoid staring at the slim hips and wider backside of the attractive twenty-something in a tight miniskirt in front of him.” So it feels strange and more than a little wrong (from a feminist point of view as much as a religious one) to write it.
After writing, I hoovered, but ended up feeling rather ill, faint, headachey and generally bad. I may have done too much. The weather, hot and humid, doesn’t help. I do feel somewhat better now, but not really ready for Shabbat: no writing or blogging or DVDs and lots of peopling albeit probably just with Mum and Dad (that can still be draining, though, especially when I feel like this). I do have to go now, though.
 I understand that there is indeed evidence from psychological studies that people from religious backgrounds that forbid or restrict sexual thoughts have noticeably more sexual thoughts than other people, probably from the same effect that makes it impossible not to think of a pink elephant as soon as someone tells you not to think of one.
The three day Yom Tov (Shabbat/Sabbath plus two day festival Shavuot) was good, but also difficult. I had a lot of anxiety and missed being in contact with E a lot. I did manage to get to shul (synagogue) quite a bit, including for Shacharit (morning prayers) on Sunday morning. I woke up at 7.00am to go to the loo, and, even though I’d only had six hours sleep, I decided to try to stay up and awake until shul rather than going back to sleep as I normally would do. Over the three days, I did some Torah study, some recreational reading, went for one walk and slept too much.
I missed the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee street party in our road because I slept through it. Now I’ve missed the Gold, Diamond and Platinum Jubilees and the 2012 Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. For someone who is religiously conservative, which you would think would lead into a respect for tradition and ritual, I’m not good at paying attention to civic celebrations. I think unless tradition or ritual speaks to me in a personal way, I like it to happen, but not to directly get involved, particularly if it involves other people.
On the plus side, my parents’ rabbi, who I will refer to as Rabbi L, came up to me after shul on Friday and said his email was not working, but he thought I sent him an email saying I was engaged, but he couldn’t read the rest of it. So I explained a bit about E and I and the immigration situation and that we would like him to marry us. I was a bit more definitive than I meant to be about that, as really I think we should just meet with him first before we finalise things. He was delighted that I got engaged and also that I asked him to marry us and we spoke about setting up a meeting to move things on.
There was some positive news after the festival too, when I looked at my phone and found a text from my GP who confirmed that he has referred me back to my psychiatrist to talk about reducing medication and also that he referred me for a sleep study.
That was all positive, but I think the conversation with Rabbi L triggered some strong anxiety about getting married which lasted over the three days. I ended up talking about my engagement to several people at shul over the three days, and with every person I tell, I feel like God is just setting me up to be hugely embarrassed if this doesn’t work out for some reason (which at this stage would be some unforeseen problem of Jewish or civil law). I worry that God is pushing me to an extreme test of faith, to see if I could still love Him without E. Yesterday I had to stop reading On Repentance (by Rabbi Pinchas Peli, based on lectures by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik) because something written in it was just reinforcing this feeling that God was going to test me by taking away what I want the most. Alternatively, I worry that God is going to punish me for not being shomer negiah (not touching before marriage), even though realistically I could say that the salient fact is not that E and I touch, but that we’re not having sex, which is a much bigger thing (not having sex outside marriage is a biblical law, which “outranks” the rabbinic law against physical contact, which is primarily intended to protect against having sex). I suppose I have a lot of guilt about sex in general.
I also had some religious OCD, which I’ve been struggling with recently, since I started reading The Odyssey, but which seemed worse over Yom Tov. It seems whenever I read anything about other religions, particularly pagan ones, I set myself up for a lot of intrusive thoughts while davening (praying). It’s the classic “If you try not to think about a pink elephant (or pagan god), you immediately think of it.” The more I try not to think about paganism while davening, the more I think about it. I know stressing about this just makes it worse, so I try not to worry, but it’s hard. I think I should just steer clear of this sort of thing, either fiction or non-fiction, which is a shame, as I do have quite a bit of curiosity to learn more about ancient society and the wider context of the biblical/Talmudic eras. Strangely, it’s only reading things that’s an issue. I can spend hours looking at idols from different cultures in the British Museum without triggering anything. I’m hoping the OCD feelings will go away when I finish reading, but I don’t plan to try reading The Iliad soon, or reading this book which I really want to read, but I just think it’s not worth it.
I actually have enjoyed The Odyssey (I’ve got about twenty pages left) and I’ve learnt some things about ancient Greek society, some things that supported the stereotypes about paganism that are common in the frum (Jewish religious) world and some that undermine them. I could write more, but I don’t really have time.
As I said, I missed E a lot, and that feeling grew over the three days, either because of the length of time or because as my anxiety grew worse I just wanted to be with her. I suppose that probably reinforced the anxiety that something will stop us being together. I guess I don’t believe that I can be happy, and I certainly don’t believe I can do “adult” things like getting married, having sex or raising children. Especially having sex. I can imagine myself raising children more easily than I can imagine myself having sex even though the former generally involves the latter. It feels like one of those things that only happen to other people, like intense religious experiences. I suppose there were three or four points in my life before E when I could have had sex if I had not been frum, although to be honest to be sure if I was really being offered sex in any of the situations would require a greater ability to read other people and the nuances of social contact than my autistic brain really allows, so even if I hadn’t been frum I would probably have erred on the cautious side and not got involved.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given all of this, I did not sleep last night. I went to bed late as Yom Tov (festival) didn’t finish until 10.30pm; then I davened Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers), emailed E about Rabbi L, got ready for work today and showered. I didn’t get much time for passive downtime, which sounds silly after three days of not working, but those days involved a lot of peopling (even meals with Mum and Dad rather than alone in front of a book or DVD) or mentally-draining activities like prayer, religious study or reading The Odyssey, which is interesting, but not light. I eventually got up to drink hot chocolate and watch The Simpsons, which helped me to unwind a bit.
Work today was OK, not really notable one way or the other. I decided not to go to Zoom shiur (religious class) tonight as I’m tired and wanted to Skype E. I will listen to the recording tomorrow. Otherwise, I’m tired. Speaking to E was good, but I should really be thinking about bed.
 I actually heard Amy-Jill Levene speak a while back at the LSJS (on Zoom, as it was during the pandemic), on the Jewish roots of the nativity story.
Today was fairly busy. I spent over an hour writing, although some of that time was taken up with procrastinating, as I was nervous to write the sexual passages I needed to write. I did manage it in the end, but I feel like I’m going to be cringing inwardly the whole time I write this book! It did get a bit better over time. I somehow managed nearly 600 words, which was good. Then I was suddenly hit by inspiration and spent another twenty or thirty minutes polishing and re-writing what I had written, ending up with well over 700 words today, which is very good.
It is hard to write about sex and pornography while simultaneously doing the following: (1) not being coy and prudish; (2) not being vulgar or pornographic myself; (3) staying broadly within the boundaries of Modern Orthodox Jewish discourse on sex; and (4) not being triggering for any recovering/recovered pornography addicts or their families. This reflects the somewhat diverse audience I’m aiming for.
I went for a run, again not very good in terms of pace or stamina, and I got a headache, but at least I went. I did some Torah study too. So I achieved quite a bit.
J asked me to work on Tuesday rather than Monday this week, so tomorrow I have a blood test in the morning and then E and I have a Zoom call with an immigration lawyer in the afternoon. We’re both a bit nervous about it and what it will mean for our wedding timetable…
I saw an advert today for an event at the LSJS where one of the presenters is someone I was at university with. I didn’t know her well, but she’s obviously successful as a barrister (lawyer), from the advert, as well as presenting at an institution I only attend as a student.
I thought I was over these feelings of inadequacy, but obviously I’m not, even if I feel I have a sort-of exemption from achieving things now I know I’m on the spectrum. Although that doesn’t feel like a good sort of exemption, more like someone saying, “Luftmentsch is special” in a very patronising tone of voice.
Then I saw in the Jewish Chronicle that (Orthodox rabbi, social commentator, civil rights activist and writer (and former Hevrian, which is how I know him/know of him)) Rabbi Shais Rishon (also known by his nom de plume of Ma Nishtana) came out a while back as autistic and polyamorous. Leaving aside the polyamorousness, which is is really his own business , the autism claim inspires uncomfortable feelings. When I see people who are more competent and successful than me coming out as autistic, a whole load of thoughts go through my head. First, are they ‘really’ autistic? Have they been diagnosed professionally? I feel bad for even thinking this, because I know I should support people on the spectrum, or who are moving towards diagnosis, but this is the first thought that comes into my head, sadly. The reason for this is because after this thought, I have more uncomfortable thoughts. I wonder if I should be as successful as they are. Note the “shoulding” and the implication of being required to be successful if someone else with autism is successful, even though autism manifests itself in different ways in each individual. I think on some level I also wonder if people are going to be less understanding of my issues and say that I should be like the successful autistic person. Sad to say, the ‘ideal’ high functioning autistic person from my point of view still has considerable struggles — but not too many, to make me feel like I’m the one whose faking it and making excuses for being useless.
 Actually, reading stuff about other people’s successful sexuality makes me feel inadequate too. E thinks I’m strong for being thirty-eight and still a virgin, but I’ve never seen it that way, mostly because, one or two occasions aside, it wasn’t a conscious choice, but something forced on me. I probably would have decided this way if it was a choice, but I can’t be sure, but ideally I would have been married ages ago and it certainly wouldn’t apply. But I guess this is something that I just have to deal with.
One thing I do want to do, which I thought about before I saw all of this, is to start a non-anonymous blog on The Times of Israel and/or The Jewish Weekly (two linked Jewish newspapers, one Israeli (although English language) and one British, both with prominent user blog sections) for my divrei Torah (Torah thoughts), just to put them out there and see if anything results. It probably won’t, but it’s worth trying. I won’t do it for a few weeks, though, as the current weeks at the end of Shemot (Exodus) and the beginning of Vayikra (Leviticus) are very ritual-based and hard to connect with from a modern perspective. I don’t want to start and then get stuck for things to write for several weeks.
I picked up another book from the free book box, this time Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s history book, Jerusalem: A Biography. I feel at the moment I am buying and acquiring books far faster than I’m reading them. I feel particularly guilty about the free book box, as I haven’t really donated anything other than a rather grubby history book, but have picked up quite a few books. I feel I should donate some things that I’m unlikely to read.
I went to bed late last night because I was trying to Do Stuff. This was basically a mistake, as I struggled to get up in time for work today. Although if I hadn’t done it, I would probably be feeling even more useless and even further behind with all the things I have to do. I felt intensely depressed today and was wondering again if I have Seasonal Affective Disorder, or an element of it. My depressive episodes tend to start at this time of year, although they can persist through spring and summer, so it’s probably SAD co-existing with an underlying vulnerability to depression. Although I should see how I feel over the coming weeks, as I’ve only had a couple of bad days; I might feel better next week (maybe).
I don’t think I made any mistakes at work, but J discovered a bad one I must have made recently, not updating the address on an invoice that I was revising from a template. I’m not quite sure how it got to the right person. But even without many obvious errors, I was stuck in self-criticism and negativity today. I felt that it’s so hard to change my life, particularly to change it enough to be able to get married (having enough money to support ourselves, but also so that E can be allowed to immigrate). I wish I could work more and earn more, just for those practical reasons rather than because I want money or consumer goods in and of themselves.
Since I’ve got home from work and have snacked on some fruit, I feel quite a bit better. I think work is a not-ideal environment for me. The people are really nice, but the building itself is dark and gloomy and that does affect my mood, doubly so when I’m also tired or hungry. I don’t really begin to feel myself until after lunch most days because of that.
On the way home I listened to an Intimate Judaism podcast about whether Judaism is ‘sex positive’. There was some talk on the podcast about how the Jewish community should think about people who can’t have sex in the way that Judaism wants because they’re gay, transexual and so on. The sex therapist on the podcast was probably more liberal here than the rabbi. I’m not gay or trans, but that feeling of moral dissonance is something I’ve been experienced I hit adolescence over twenty years ago. E says I’m “strong” for staying a virgin for so long, but I rarely had the option not to be one. The actual times I’ve consciously made a choice not to have sex can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. On the other hand, the times I’ve deliberately or unintentionally broken Jewish law around sex and sexual fantasy (without ever actually having sex) are far too many to be counted. However, I really feel strongly against any kind of “making excuses” for myself. But at the same time, I want people to understand what I’ve been through, hence the books I want to write. I want people to understand without lowering their standards, but having more compassion.
Some months ago, E sent me a link to an Instagram post from Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt where she said:
How about we invest in real Orthodox art? What if instead of investing in askanim & bloggers to whine about misrepresentation – we empower frum independent-minded artists to do creative work, tell stories of our communities, bravely, *candidly*? The beautiful & challenging, the inspiring but also the systemic issues that emerge in communities in which there is the inevitable tug-of-war between individualism & conformity, tradition & modernity...
No, not “my Orthodox life is fun & perfect” tales, but stories of faith, conflicts, struggles? Not sanitized hagiography, but flesh & blood. Not “content,” but art. Stories that show we are human & nothing more.
I want to do this, to the limit of my ability, and it’s one of the main things that motivates me to want to keep writing and keep searching for an agent/publisher even when (as at the moment) things are hard both in my head (mood) and in the world (rejection or just lack of time and energy).
I don’t think I’ve suffered more than most people, although I don’t think I’ve suffered less than them either. I’m not sure that many people are free of suffering for long. When I think of other people suffering, it motivates me to want to write to let people know that this suffering exists. However, when I think of my own suffering, I just want to give up. It’s hard to get to the right mindset.
It did occur to me last night that Rebbetzin Chizhik-Goldschmidt, as a prominent Jewish journalist and also as a rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) might have contacts in the world of publishing and I was vaguely thinking about trying to email her to say what I’ve just said here and outlining some of my projects and ask if she had any suggestions of where to look for an agent or publisher. But when I started to look for contact details online I discovered that her husband has literally just been fired from his job and the family has been made homeless, as well as facing a huge amount of criticism from their former community. So it’s probably not the best time to try that.
There was a time when I tried to read one poem a day. I stopped doing that in an earlier episode of depression; it was just one more ‘should.’ Now I only read poetry when blog friends post it, and not always then (sorry). I have been wanting to re-read T. S. Eliot lately, though, primarily The Waste Land, but The Hollow Men has been on my mind a bit, thinking about wanting to write and writing not being the same thing:
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long
My parents’ suspected COVID has turned out to be a heavy cold, fortunately, although I’m still hoping to avoid it. I’m actually not particularly susceptible to colds and viruses, so I’m hopeful. It would not be good if E comes to the UK and I’m too ill to leave the house!
I went to bed early last night as I had had an exercise headache after running and was not feeling 100% even though the pain had subsided. However, I couldn’t sleep. I’m not sure if I couldn’t sleep because I was worrying, or if I just had time to worry because I was lying in bed unable to sleep. I thought I would write down my anxieties and possible plans for dealing with them. I didn’t want to go on the computer in case the light made the insomnia worse, so I wrote it on paper. I tried to write some suggestions to deal with the anxieties too, rather than just rehearse them.
Looking over it today, some of it seems catastrophising. It’s true that the publishing industry leans somewhat progressive/woke, and that few books (fiction or non-fiction) presenting the Orthodox Jewish community (or other conservative religious communities) in a positive light exist. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I won’t find an agent or a publisher for my book, especially as I think the Jewish non-representation issue is as much a problem of supply as demand; there aren’t enough good writers in a community that does not value artistic creation highly. On a practical level, as I am struggling to send query letters to five or ten agents in one go each month, maybe it would be more realistic to send to two agents a week.
I do also worry that the novel I am planning will get me a terrible reputation for writing about sex and pornography use in the frum (religious Jewish) community, but I feel driven to write the novel regardless. A bigger problem is my fear that I won’t be able to pull the whole plot together and created rounded characters, but I have no way of knowing except by trying. I also fear that writing about sex when I’m a thirty-eight year old virgin is not the most sensible thing to do, but I guess I have a unique voice, and writing about pornography addiction is not exactly the same as writing about sex (not that I have experience of addiction either, but I’m researching).
More realistically, I was worried that COVID would disrupt E’s trip here. That’s less likely now my parents’ tests came back negative, but it’s still possible. It’s just something we (= the world) will have to learn to live with.
My biggest worry last night was actually the easiest to resolve today. I was worried about talking to J about mistakes at work, but when I did that today, he seemed laid back about it. On reflection, I think it’s only one or two tasks where I continually make mistakes and J seems to think I will improve with experience.
Other than that, it was an ordinary day at work, but I managed to do about an hour of work on my new novel in the evening! I wanted to plan out the story, but realised I needed to work understanding the characters first. It’s that idea of knowing if I can do it by trying. I have a better idea of character and plot now. I don’t think I’m going to get much time to focus on it in the immediate future, though, with E coming here soon and the fact that I want to spend some serious time finding an agent for my first novel. But I’m glad to have made some progress, as I want to get some kind of an outline written for the novel soon, so I can see if it has potential before I invest too much time in it. I would have liked to have spent even more time on it, but I got too tired.
I probably shouldn’t write too much about my creative process here, for fear of killing it, but it helps me to process things to speak a bit about it.
It’s the last day of August, which seems unbelievable. The year has dragged with regard to COVID, but in other ways it has sped past. It is also Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) next week, which also seem unbelievable. Rosh Hashanah is very rarely this early in the solar year (the Jewish lunar calendar moves about with regard to the solar calendar).
The Jewish year has been good for me on the whole. I feel a bit bad about that, when COVID has made it so terrible for so many people. But it’s good that I’m back together with E, that I’m working, albeit part-time (all I can cope with), and that I finished my novel. I just feel a lot of gratitude at where my life is, albeit coupled with a desire for help in moving it on to the next level (which would be marrying E and monetising my writing at least by getting my novel published).
Despite this, my mood today has been up and down, largely because of more boring data entry work and nervousness about speaking to my shul (synagogue) rabbi about my autism/Asperger’s (yes, that’s happening). I have tried to hold on to the good things, like Skyping E.
I listened to the Jewish educator Erica Brown speak about her book on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe. She spoke about the difficulty of translating ‘teshuva,’ which means ‘penitence,’ which sounds rather heavy. It can also mean ‘returning’ and that’s a common translation in frum (religious) circles, but she prefers ‘recovery,’ having worked with addicts.
It occurred to me when listening to this that teshuva also means ‘answer’ in Hebrew. Perhaps our teshuva is an answer to God. What is the question? Perhaps the primordial question that God asked Adam and Chava (Eve) in the Garden of Eden: “Where are you?” (Bereshit/Genesis 3.9) The Midrash sees this as a question designed to tease out a repenting/returning/recovering/answering response from Adam and Chava, but instead they blamed other people and refused to take responsibility for their actions. At this time of year we can ‘answer’ God realistically about our lives.
Erica Brown talked about the importance of not focusing solely on the negatives in our lives, but also on the positives, asking ourselves what we are doing right morally and religiously. I think I have grown and improved in some ways over the year, although I won’t go into that here. I have also come to feel confident that my life should be with E, and that I should also be trying to write fiction professionally, tough though it will probably be to get published. This was reinforced by listening to the latest Intimate Judaism podcast, where they were talking about the way sex is spoken about at yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) and sem (women’s seminary) and whether there is a rape culture, a hookup culture or a generally unhealthy sexual culture in these places, and how the frum (religious) community should be encouraging young adults to view their burgeoning sexuality.
The podcast made me desperate to write my idea for a novel about a pornography-addicted rabbi. This is probably not what Talli Rosenbaum and Rabbi Scott Kahn intended as a response to their podcast, nor what Erica Brown intended as a positive to focus for the coming year, but that’s where I am at the moment. I need to get some books on pornography addiction as background reading before I can go any further with planning (I know Joshua Shea sometimes reads this so – yes, your books are on the top of my list!) which I probably won’t do until after all the Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals). I have a short story to work on until then, but I hope I can find the time to write between work, therapy, Yom Tov and general religious practice (Torah study, prayer). It’s a busy time of the year for religious Jews.
At any rate, I feel that writing is my current ‘answer’ to God, that I want to move on with my relationship and my writing, but that I need a lot of divine help.
I woke up earlyish (9.00am), probably because I slept so much yesterday. I actually managed to get up, albeit partly because I worried that if I stayed in bed, I would just feel anxious. I spent some time writing some notes about the way autism affects me at shul (synagogue) and in my religious community so that I can speak to my communal rabbi when he gets back from holiday later this week. I’m not really happy with what I’ve written, but it’s a start and I still have time to talk about it with my parents (I already spoke to E), although probably not with my therapist, who is on holiday until next week.
I also spent some time typing up my notes on my “pornography-addicted rabbi” novel idea. Notebooks are good for jotting ideas down, but Word documents are better for moving things around and ordering them. At the moment I have some characters and vague story ideas, but no real plot. Well, I have an idea of where I want to go, but not how I get there. I’m already scared of what publishing such a story would mean for me as a member of the frum (religious Jewish) community, whether there would be any backlash like the backlash around Unorthodox and My Unorthodox Life. I don’t intend the book to be anti-religious (if anything the reverse, but I can see that some people might not see that). However, this seems the best way (well, a way, maybe not the best way) to talk about issues around sex and gender, and around addiction and mental health, in the frum community.
I guess this has become an ‘aspiring writer’ blog, now that it’s not exactly a ‘mental illness blog’ or a ‘fighting for an autism diagnosis’ blog. I probably shouldn’t say much about ongoing projects, but I find it hard to keep total radio silence. If I speak about my projects, I feel I have to follow through with them. I can’t chicken out of writing a novel I’ve ‘trailed’ here. I probably also should call myself a ‘writer’ rather than an ‘aspiring writer,’ but I still feel that I’m not there yet.
Despite this, and having also gone for a run, done over an hour of Torah study and Skyped E, I have a vague feeling of not having done enough, and of having procrastinated online (despite my attempt to limit my internet use at the moment) instead of actually relaxing. I really do need to talk to my therapist about this.
I mentioned yesterday that I’ve had the idea for a while that someone should write a novel about pornography addiction in the frum (religious Jewish) community, but that I didn’t think I was the person to do it. Except that the idea has roosted in my head overnight and now I find myself thinking up supporting characters and details, like, “What if he has a feminist teenage daughter who is struggling with Orthodox gender boundaries and her father’s addiction tips her over the edge into stopping being religious?” So I wrote some notes in my ideas notebook to one day come back to when I’m looking for a project. It’s a scary topic to even think about writing about, though, far more so than my thoughts about a Jewish fantasy/time-travel series of novels.
One of the reasons I was always reluctant to go down the route of writing fiction (for publication or for fun) was the fear that I would eventually (and probably quite quickly) run out of inspiration. Related to this was a belief that a “real” writer would intuit a story in its entirety from the start without really needing to work on it. I realise now that ideas are regularly floating through my head ripe for development and in the past I’ve quite deliberately pushed them away for fear of where they would lead, in terms of feeling the need to write them and the potential for failure inherent in that. I also realise that even “real” writers have to work on their stories and sometimes significant things need to be changed quite late in the writing process.
Of course, that doesn’t make writing less scary, particularly when the ideas that find me sometimes seem to have to do with difficult, rarely-discussed subjects like abuse or addiction, but I suppose it’s the “not being discussed” element that makes me want to write them, because I want to read those books, but they don’t exist (yet).
Just to note why this might be important, I just looked on Aish.com, a popular Orthodox Jewish inspirational site, and found five articles on pornography addition in the frum community, three from the point of view of the addict and two from the point of view of the spouse. So, it is out there, whether we want to admit in the frum community or not.
I spent nearly an hour working on redrafting my novel (my current one). Initially, I tried to work for an hour as usual, without much success, as I procrastinated online. I switched to intense twenty minute blocs of writing interspersed with online breaks. It seemed to work better that way. I did about fifty-five minutes of work. I would have liked to have made it to a round hour, but I was at a chapter break before a long passage that would take more than five minutes to read and redraft and too tired to keep going beyond that.
Redrafting seems to be going quite quickly. I’m not sure if that’s good or not. It’s good that I don’t seem to need to change much, but maybe I should be changing more and I just can’t see the flaws in my writing because I’ve spent so long working on it (getting on for two years by this stage).
I wrote the following in my devar Torah (Torah thought) for this week (for those of you on my mailing list, consider this a sneak preview):
In a lecture entitled Religious Styles, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik describes Torah transmission as being two-fold. There is the aspect of learning halakhah, the details of the various Jewish laws. This can be learnt from any scholar or from a book. However, there is also the aspect of learning how to develop “a Torah style of living,” to find the unique way that God wants you, and you alone, to live a Torah-based life, and this can only be learnt “by osmosis” from attendance on a personal teacher. Even then, because style is ultimately unique and individualistic, the real creation of a religious style has to be done alone, through the experience of living a Jewish way of life. In particular, it is only by developing a unique religious style that one can develop happiness, meaningfulness and satisfaction with Judaism, even ecstasy, and it is these that allow a person to transmit a Jewish way of life to his or her children – who can then develop their own unique style based on what they receive.
 In Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Morality: Essays on Ethics and Masorah
 Rabbi Soloveitchik, Halakhic Morality pp. 196-201
This passage helped me to understand my own feelings about Judaism, the way I feel that I do what is required of me, at least as far as I can, given my “issues,” but somehow feel a lack of something “more.” I think what I lack is the sense of having my own religious style, what Judaism means to me, and the distinctive way I live it. Maybe I’m so allergic to contemporaries who talk about “MY Judaism” (as if there were no objective content to Judaism) that I’ve over-compensated, or maybe I haven’t had a close enough relationship with rabbis and mentors. Certainly for a long time now I have felt that it is this, the close contact with great scholars and righteous people, that I feel that I missed out on by not going to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary), as much as the actual content I would have learnt there. Or maybe I’m a work in progress. Although he doesn’t say it explicitly, Rav Soloveitchik could be read as implying that developing a religious style is a work in progress across a lifetime as personality develops.
I am trying to convince myself that it is OK to have my own unique relationship with Judaism, which sometimes means doing things differently to my community and can mean doing things like writing fiction that aren’t traditionally seen as religious. Including potentially writing about Jewish pornography addicts.
Warning: this is rather more rambling and pity partyish than usual. Please don’t feel obliged to read.
Nietzsche wrote about mental illness being “fierce dogs in the cellar.” I think they’ve been barking a lot more in the last few days and I don’t know why. I was practically in tears while davening Shacharit (saying Morning Prayers) again today, and again at lunch, and a third time in the afternoon when doing Torah study, and I still don’t know why. I don’t know why specifically Shacharit and not the other prayers either; Shacharit is the least logical service for me to cry in, as I’m invariably late and rushing through just a few prayers before the final deadline. It would make more sense if I was in tears in the other services where I say the whole thing and at least try to have some kavannah (concentration/mindfulness).
I was actually doing OK early today at trying to stay in the present and not worry and obsess about the future, but over the day I drifted into one of my “I’m Fouled Up Beyond All Hope” moods.
Early today I felt that I should just rip up my novel and my Asperger’s article and start over, because neither of them have truth in them. Perhaps truth is the main thing distinguishing a good writer from a hack. George Orwell wrote about this, I think. Not some transcendent religious or philosophical truth, but simply the truth of someone’s experiences. I think my blog sometimes has truth, but not my other writing.
I thought of a particular saying from the Kotzker Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, nineteenth century Hasidic leader) “The Evil Urge has found a new method, in which it succeeds; no longer must it do battle day and night. It toils only to take from you the delicate chord of truth in your heart, and afterwards it lets you do as you will: to work, to study, to pray… for without the point of truth, whatever you do is no longer important to the Evil Urge.” (The Sayings of Menahem Mendel of Kotsk [sic] edited by Simcha Raz, ellipsis in original) I think it’s a long time since I’ve had the “point of truth” in my writing, my study or my prayer.
I don’t think I’m that truthful in friendships and relationships either. By truthful I don’t mean ‘not lying’ (I’m not dishonest), but being fully open and ‘myself.’ I’m quite truthful with my parents, but I generally only talk about the dark stuff when it gets unbearable. I’m not always truthful with my sister. I can joke around with her, and my parents, but not always talk about the dark stuff. With most of my friends, I’m not really myself and not open at all. I would want to be truthful and to be myself in a relationship, but I don’t know if I could. I think I did with E. There were things that didn’t work in that relationship, but that aspect did work. Sometimes I wonder if I made the right decision in breaking up, although it was already an on/off relationship, so clearly something wasn’t working. I wasn’t able to be truthful with PIMOJ at all, which is why the relationship failed, although to be fair she expected me to be truthful without being the same herself. I was truthful with my first girlfriend, but, again, she wasn’t with me, and again, it contributed to the failure of the relationship.
I was going to say I’m truthful with my therapist and my rabbi mentor, but even then I’m not entirely. I’m fairly truthful with my rabbi mentor, probably more than with other people. I try to be truthful with God. I don’t know how much I succeed. I can’t hide anything from God, although a lot of things seem too trivial to mention to him, even though they upset me a lot. I don’t joke with Him much, but it hardly seems important to do so with Him.
On a more positive note, when I went to look up that quote from the Kotzker, I found a bookmark pointing to the page that had this quote that I had forgotten about: “We have not found in any place in the Torah that a person is commanded to be a scholar and erudite in all the chambers of the Torah. For the purpose of study is not to be a scholar, but to be a good man, to do what is good and to act beneficently towards your fellow.” This is pretty much entirely against the prevailing worldview of the Haredi world, or at least the Yeshivish part of it, which sees becoming a great scholar as the only purpose of Judaism, at least for men. It reminds me of the man who boasted to the Kotzker Rebbe that he had been through the whole Talmud three times. “Yes, but how many times has the Talmud been through you?” the Rebbe responded.
Of course, it’s entirely open to question whether I’m a good man who does what is good and acts beneficently towards my fellow, but it’s a more viable target for me than going through the Talmud three times.
I did eventually sit down to work on my article. I read some published articles about Asperger’s and learning disabilities on Aish as research and I think my article isn’t hugely wide of the mark, although there are still many reasons it might be rejected. I spent about an hour reading and re-writing. I think tomorrow I will actually write the pitch and see what happens. I tend to be less successful at pitching things than writing them, I think.
I went for a walk after that. It was very windy, the wind blowing clouds of blossom around so that it felt like walking through snow or confetti.
I spent half an hour researching my devar Torah (Torah thought), using the English translations on Sefaria more than I would like (Sefaria translations are often crowdsourced and sometimes inaccurate). I have an idea of what topic to write about, but not really what to say, which probably means it’s going to be another week where I feel like I’m bluffing my way through it. I think writing a devar Torah each week is a good exercise for multiple reasons, but some weeks I do feel a bit of a fraud (truth again). I doubt I could do it if I worked full-time.
It gets REALLY pity partyish from here. Honestly, I won’t mind if you don’t read it.
I wish I knew how to cope with being celibate. The internet is monumentally unhelpful about this. After more than twenty years of celibacy since I hit adolescence, I feel at my wits’ end. I emailed Intimate Judaism about this, but the sex therapist there didn’t respond to that aspect of the email, only saying she would try to set me up with a shadchan (matchmaker) who works with people with special needs in the UK. She said she has asked her colleagues and is waiting for an answer. I am doubtful, as I have made similar inquires in the past. Even if she finds one, there is also the realistic likelihood of me being too modern for such a shadchan and her clientele. And I still need help to cope with celibacy in the interim, especially as I’m not sure if I should go to a shadchan while only working two days a week and financially insecure, not to mention being emotionally fragile.
(I should probably add in terms of the special needs shadchan that when I tried looking for one a few years ago, my father asked the wife of the then-assistant rabbi at his shul (synagogue) if she knew anyone who could help someone with depression get married — at that stage, depression seemed to be the main issue as I wasn’t diagnosed on the spectrum. She said “Rebbetzin D” who I never got around to phoning. There always seemed to be good reasons (it was nearly Pesach; I found a relationship independently; I went to a different shadchan that seemed more promising and so on), but I suppose unconsciously I was socially anxious and unsure whether she could help or even how I would start the conversation as Rebbetzin D isn’t a shadchan and I was wary of what “help” she might be able to provide and how she would respond to being phoned out of the blue by a stranger. I suppose I could try to contact her now, although it’s three or four years down the line, and, as I said, I don’t know if I should be looking to get married in my current financial situation.)
I need touch sometimes. I live with my parents, so I can still get hugs, although physical contact with my parents can still be awkward for autistic reasons and reasons based on my past. I do long to be with someone I really connect with again. That wouldn’t necessarily be a partner, but could be a close friend; nevertheless, since adolescence, I’ve only had such close friendships with women, which makes them awkward when they are platonic, because usually I want them to be more, but the other person doesn’t, or because the other person isn’t Jewish or isn’t religious enough for me, which is also awkward. I have dated women less religious than me, at my rabbi mentor’s encouragement, but I don’t know how viable such a relationship would be in the long-term. Certainly it put strains on those relationships which contributed to their ending.
Above all, I want to learn how to deal with sexual and romantic desire when single from a halakhic (Jewish law) point of view. I don’t think I have a particularly high sex drive, but I do have a greater desire for love and sex when depressed and lonely — in other words, when marriage seems most distant from me. This is rather cruel. I can’t say that I live my life entirely halakhically regarding sex. I just try to do the best I can, but I don’t know whether I could do better if someone guided me, or if I had more willpower or more control over my thoughts and emotions (autistic emotional regulation is not always the best). And I don’t know what God thinks about me, whether He thinks I’m at least trying to keep halakhah or if He thinks that frankly I could do better and wants to punish me. Or is punishing me. To be honest, while my low self-esteem is rooted in negative childhood experiences like bullying (among other things) the constant level of sexual guilt since I was thirteen and hit puberty probably hasn’t helped much. The Orthodox world’s only answer to this is early marriage, which doesn’t really work when you’re thirty-seven.
(And I should say that although I feel hugely guilty about my sexuality, I’ve still never had anything approaching actual intercourse, which somehow makes the whole thing seem even more pathetic.)
It feels like the most realistic option for me is to learn to be happy alone and celibate, but everyone just says, “No, you can get married,” without doing anything practical to advance that outcome. It’s weird, because I’m used to people saying that you should be “happy with your lot” rather than endlessly daydream about some eventuality that might never come to pass. Yet everyone encourages me to stay positive about finding a mate even after so many years and so many rejections. It’s like everyone was suggesting I should solve my financial problems by trying to win the lottery when I want to find a job.
I feel that what I want more than anything is for God to tell me that He thinks I’m a good person (God, not human beings who don’t know me and might lie to make me feel better). But He won’t, not in this world.
Today seems to have been a day for beating myself up. Most of the things below happened independently of each other, but all seem to have provoked me to beat myself up. I kind of take my low self-esteem for granted and don’t write about it much, but it is there a lot of the time, closely linked with social anxiety and autistic communication difficulties.
I was tired when I woke up this morning, but my mood was initially OK. I did spend too long online before getting dressed though. I don’t know why mornings are so hard. I went out to get my lithium blood test form and do some shopping and my mood dropped. I was somewhat self-critical and negative about the future. When I’m at home, I can feel OKish about where I am in my life: part-time work, single, living with my parents. But when I go out, I see other people and start to compare. Even if I’m not consciously comparing, I think I’m doing it unconsciously. I live in an area with a lot of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) families, so I invariably see people ten years or more younger than me with children, which just makes me feel like I totally missed the boat regarding marriage and family.
I used to rate my mood each day out of ten, to track my progress. It occurs to me that maybe I should do that again to see how it fluctuates from day to day and even across the day. Today I felt bad compared to the last few days, but, trying to rate it objectively, I doubt my mood was less than 5/10, which is obviously much better than when it never rose above 3/10 even on a “better” day.
Someone at depression group last night spoke about people on the autism spectrum being good at noticing things and spotting patterns and discrepancies. This is an idea I struggle with. I have heard it often; I know the psychologist Simon Baron Cohen has published a book recently about autistic people being “pattern seekers” and therefore able to contribute to society in that way. I know some finance firms deliberately recruit people on the spectrum on the grounds that they can see patterns in the money markets better than neurotypical people.
I feel uncomfortable with that because I don’t know if I “pattern seek” at all; if I do, it’s not in a socially useful way. I do notice some things other people don’t. I stop suddenly in the street to look at an interesting insect and it’s hard for me to walk past writing without reading it, whether on a billboard, on a scrap of paper or leaflet on the street or on the newspaper of someone opposite me on the Tube. That might count as noticing things and seeking patterns, although it might just be that my interests are weird (which would also be typical for someone on the spectrum).
I can find patterns within the things I like. For instance, it excites me that David Bowie had a cameo appearance in the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me because it’s two things I like (David Bowie and Twin Peaks) meeting unexpectedly. However, I don’t feel I can do anything useful with this ability, if it even is an “ability.” I can’t do anything that other people can’t do and I don’t think I am particularly good at finding patterns in the abstract or noticing things. In fact, in many ways I’m very bad at noticing things. I notice immediately if anyone moves anything in my bedroom, because I jealously guard my own territory, but I don’t necessarily notice if my parents rearrange the furniture downstairs, because “their” territory doesn’t really interest me or register on my consciousness.
I guess I would like to find an area where my autism/Asperger’s gives me some kind of advantage, if only to feel better about myself, but it’s hard to think of one.
A related issue is that of analytical ability. People on the spectrum are often very analytical. I’m not and I’m not sure if I ever was, or if it was eroded by depression. I did well at school, including in science, so I must have had some analytical ability as a child and teenager. Somewhere along the line I lost it though. In particular, I’ve never been good at studying Talmud, whether Mishnah or Gemarah (Mishnah, the earlier part of the Talmud, is somewhat clearer and easier than Gemarah, the later part of the Talmud which analyzes the Mishnah), back from when I first encountered it in voluntary lunchtime lessons at school. This was one reason among several why I never went to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary). Why would I spend a year of my life in a foreign country studying texts I can’t understand and don’t enjoy?
The problem, as I was reminded today listening to a shiur (religious class) online while I cooked dinner, is that Talmudic study is considered the paramount religious activity in the frum (religious Jewish) world, at least for men. Tanakh study (biblical study), which is probably my favourite Torah activity, along with the study of Midrash (the rabbinic expansions of the biblical text, which function as both creative commentaries and non-literal ways of exploring theological and ethical topics). It is more intuitive and creative that Talmud study, which tends to be strongly based on logic, but is largely ignored for men, except in parts of the Religious Zionist world.
The shiur I listened to was poorly recorded and had lots of untranslated Hebrew, neither of which endeared it to me (to be fair, the fact that I was cooking at the same time probably didn’t help matters), but it was mostly about the importance of studying Torah for its own sake, which mostly means Talmud. Even when I study Tanakh, I’m not sure how much I’m studying to “know the mind of God” and how much just because I’m frum and it’s what I’m supposed to do, just as I don’t enjoy fasting on Yom Kippur, but I do it anyway.
It’s strange that I have a strong connection to a form of Judaism that I’m unable to really practice or enjoy. If you look at the major aspects of frum life, I can’t study Talmud and halakhah; I find it hard to connect to God with prayer, whether set prayers or spontaneous prayers (years ago I could connect this way, but I haven’t been able to for a long time, at least not consistently); I’m too socially anxious to really engage in communal activity or chessed (acts of kindness); I have failed to get married and start a family… I can’t do these things well or at all, no matter how hard I try, and I do not enjoy most of them (which admittedly is not a brilliant measure of anything, as I’m pretty anhedonic even when not actually depressed and struggle to enjoy anything, but certainly the idea of enjoying studying Torah and enjoying doing mitzvot are key ideas in Judaism). Yet I continue to try to be frum, and to beat myself up for not succeeding. I’m not sure what spiritual or psychological drive is pushing that. It’s like I want to set myself a target I can’t attain. I suppose that no other religion or philosophy of life seems to offer a better alternative to me, and I believe in God and the Torah, and want to connect to the Jewish people, my contemporaries and my ancestors. But it’s very hard to actually do it.
I also heard back from the Intimate Judaism sex therapist. I just cringed when the email came in, the way I always do when I reach out to people and they respond positively — yes, I mean positively; positive responses can be as shame-inducing as negative ones, with less reason. I guess I feel that I am not worth it, or that there will now be another stage of possible failure e.g. the sex therapist says that she can suggest shadchanim (matchmakers) who might be willing to work with me to find a spouse, which raises all the fears around dating and rejection there. Actually, even beyond a further stage of failure, I’m so used to being ignored that when people are nice to me, I panic and don’t know what to do, and don’t feel like I deserve it. I think across my life the times when I wanted the ground to swallow me up were as much for compliments and positive attention as for shame and negative attention.
Now I need to find the confidence to respond…
Where has WordPress moved the tags box to? Why do they keep changing things? EDIT: it’s back now. Maybe the page wasn’t loading properly.
I didn’t watch The Favourite in the end last night. After about ten minutes of it, my parents decided that, for a comedy, it was too weird and unfunny and stopped watching. I don’t mind weird, so I carried on for another twenty minutes or so, but I felt self-conscious, like there was a voice in my head asking me all the time if I was really enjoying it. Plus, I was getting annoyed by all the anachronisms. There was no “Prime Minister” or “Loyal Opposition” in Queen Anne’s reign and, although I wasn’t sure about this, I doubted that there was grouse shooting either (it seems I was right — I think in the early eighteenth century we’re still talking about guns that are difficult to aim accurately and take ages to reload). Also, while I can see that authentic eighteenth century dialogue would be off-putting, Tory leader Robert Harley saying something was “cute” just sounded weird (I was more offended by that than by conspicuous use of another four-letter word beginning with ‘c’ which was at least more authentic). So, I stopped watching, but I do vaguely wonder if I should have persevered.
I was a little burnt out on waking today, tired and a bit low, but I did manage to get ready for work. I had a small moral dilemma at work. Nothing huge, an issue of copyright law, but I feel a bit bad thinking about how I dealt with it. Other things being equal, I would not have done what I was asked to do, but I didn’t feel it was important enough to complain about, but now I feel vaguely guilty. I feel similarly bad about not socially distancing properly when I was dating PIMOJ, which was again something I sort of went along with to avoid making a fuss. I definitely find it easier to make a stand when I’m by myself, which is not a good thing.
At work I did tell J about my Asperger’s (I used that term rather than autism, although he did mention autism as something similar and I said it was a spectrum without going into details). I mentioned it in regard to processing verbal information, multitasking and phone conversations, as they seemed to be the most relevant areas. With regard to the first point, he said it’s OK to take notes. As for the other points, I didn’t make any specific requests or suggestions. It was a bit of a non-event and I suppose he may have been wondering why I brought it up, as nothing practical really came out of it, which I guess is a lesson for when I talk to the rabbi (which I still haven’t decided about yet).
We finished work early. We were going to one of our other sites briefly and J wanted to go before the rush hour traffic started, so I had a very truncated work day.
I wrote to the Intimate Judaism podcasters. I feel rather nervous about it. I worry I said too much. I would be a useless spy, I have the urge to confess all my secrets (see also: this blog). I’m also worried they’ll remember I wrote to them a year or so ago, when my life situation was rather different. I thought they wouldn’t remember, as they get loads of emails, so didn’t mention it, but now wonder if I should have done so. I asked for tips dealing with long-term celibacy and religious guilt, as well as feeling on the fringes of the frum (religious) community because of autism and mental illness. I’m not sure if a rabbi and a sex therapist were the best people to ask about the latter, but, having mentioned that I feel on the margins of the community as both a cause and a result of being single, it seemed silly not to mention it.
I had depression group in the evening. I wasn’t feeling particularly depressed, but wanted to go to support others, although I don’t say much in these meetings, aside from when it’s my turn to speak. I do this even when they’re in person, let alone on Zoom. I can’t always think of something to say and rarely work up the courage to say it; if I manage both of those things, the moment has usually gone by the time I’m ready to say anything. But I’m glad I went. I do feel more self-conscious at these meetings now I’m talking more about autism than depression, though. I’m not entirely sure why that is.
Recreation-wise, I finished reading Vampire Romance (amusing, but I found there were too many characters to keep track of in such a short novella). I just started reading Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. I’ve read all of Orwell’s essays, even the not-famous ones, but not any of his book-length non-fiction. In terms of TV, I’ve been watching The Simpsons while I still have access to Disney+, although the more recent episodes are not very funny. My Babylon 5 re-watch is on hold (at an exciting bit) as the season four DVDs needed replacing like the earlier ones (why? WHY??). I’m also watching Doctor Who: The Time Monster, probably the least successful serial from Jon Pertwee’s five years in the title role. I’m not sure why I picked it. I think I wanted to watch something with Pertwee and, because this isn’t very good, I haven’t watched it as much as some of the others. It is silly, although not in the deliberate way something like The Creature from the Pit or Love & Monsters is silly. Nevertheless, I marvel that, in 1972, dialogue like “Being without becoming — an ontological absurdity!” was deemed suitable for a family show with a large child audience.
Names encountered today at work: Abraham Abrahams and Nathan Nathan (genuine names, but from the nineteenth century). Reminds me of Catch-22 and Major Major.