Notes from a Quiet Yom Tov (Short Post)

Yom Tov (festival) was quiet. It feels odd not to have another Yom Tov on the horizon after a month of one after another. I went to shul (synagogue) on Friday evening. It was OK, but I still feel very anxious there and it’s hard to distinguish social anxiety from autistic “new situation” anxiety (mid-COVID). Wearing a mask for so long is uncomfortable too.

That was it, really. I stayed at home. We davened (prayed) and ate and slept. I did some Torah study. I had a migraine last night and threw up a little. I tried not to think about the job rejection; occasionally I had negative thoughts about my future and my apparent inability to get or hold down a job like a “normal” person. I dreamt about the boss from a previous job, one who I didn’t like and who said she was disappointed in me and my failure to learn the job as well or as fast as she expected. I dreamt about her being my teacher at school. I don’t remember much else of the dream, except that there were giant speaking dogs, for some reason.

I slept for two hours in the afternoon today, which I didn’t really want to do. Because of that, I’m probably too awake, or was until just now. Since Yom Tov ended, I’ve been going through emails and blog posts (so many build up in just two days), eating dinner and then polishing silver for my parents, trying to tire myself out. I’m watching the last episode of Star Trek Voyager. Voyager is not the greatest Star Trek series by any means, but somehow it’s been ideal pandemic viewing, unchallenging and reassuring with a strong family feel among the crew who seem to be able forgive each other for any misbehaviour.

Dancers at the End of Yom Tov

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

The Final Hours

I think my particularly bad day, depression-wise, on Friday was a result of forgetting to take my lithium on Thursday evening (so it does do something).  The last couple of days have been better, but somewhat listless.  I’m trying to gather my resources for the final Yom Tov (festival) of the Jewish autumn holiday season.

Friday evening was difficult.  My sister, her husband and his sister were here, but the atmosphere was subdued.  I don’t want to go into details, as I don’t know if they would want it online, but my sister’s in-laws are going through a serious health crisis, so there was a heavy cloud over the evening as we were all worried, particularly my brother-in-law and his sister.

I was up late yesterday evening, which was not my intention.  I wanted to catch up on some emails after Shabbat (the Sabbath), which have been neglected lately because of Yom Tov and inter-Yom Tov busyness at work.  In particular, I wanted to respond to an acquaintance who wrote to say that she thinks that she is on the autistic spectrum and wonders if I might be too.  That was a difficult email to write, as I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to reveal.  I opened up a bit about my autism non-diagnosis and mental health issues, but I refrained from mentioning the blog (at this stage).  But I obviously found it hard to write, as I kept letting myself get distracted with aimless internet surfing.  The result was a very late night (I think I got to bed around 3.00am) and a late start today.  I feel depressed and drained.  Just getting dressed was a tremendous effort.

I’ve neglected my non-depression writing of late, partly due to the job change and Yom Tovim.  I wanted to write a Doctor Who blog post today and even wrote the first paragraph, but I just feel too drained.  I hope it wasn’t a mistake paying for a professional (advert-free) blog to use to promote my Doctor Who writing, because I have hardly posted anything on it so far.

I am trying to get back into the habit of regularly studying Nakh, the post-Mosaic books of the Hebrew Bible.  It is hard, as I tend to do much of my Torah study on the train, and taking a big Tanakh (Bible) along with the smaller JPS English-only Bible (because the translation is sometimes more accurate, particularly with obscure words) is impossible, even without the heavy Brown-Driver-Briggs biblical Hebrew dictionary.  I do sometimes find it somewhat restoring, rather than draining (as Talmud is), although I do not know how much is down to being inspired by the subject matter or how much due to the literary qualities of the poetry and prose and how much just from the challenge of translating and understanding an ancient language.

We are headed for the last forty-eight hours of the month long Jewish holiday season.  I can cope with Shmini Atzeret as there aren’t really any special mitzvot or practices, but Simchat Torah is very hard for me.  I suspect it’s a nightmare for anyone with introversion, depression, social anxiety or autism, let alone all of them.  It’s mostly celebrated through ecstatic (alcohol-fuelled) dancing with the Torah scrolls in shul (synagogue) to celebrate completing the annual cycle of reading the Torah.  Once or twice, when the depression has been in remission, I have given myself over to it and those experiences were liberating, but mostly I just feel overwhelmed by noise and embarrassment and not wanting to be there, feeling a Bad Jew and a failure as a human being for not joining in, even for not feeling able to join in.  Standing on the sidelines watching everyone else dancing reminds me of how many things there are that other people enjoy that I can’t experience because of my depression, anhedonia and social anxiety: simple everyday things like happiness, love, friendship, community, family (people dance with their children or grandchildren), simcha shel mitzvah (joy of performing the commandments),religious meaning, love of Torah, even just whisky…

Even worse, at my current shul they auction off honours at the start of the service.  I had heard of honours being auctioned on Simchat Torah in return for gifts to tzedaka (charity) or to the shul, but until last year I had not seen them auctioned off for ‘learning’ (Torah study).  The idea is to get the whole community to study the whole of the Mishnah each year, so Simchat Torah honours are auctioned off for a number of chapters of the Mishnah and sometimes for pages of Talmud.

I don’t like this for a couple of reasons.  At the moment I can’t commit to much in the way of Torah study because of my depression.  Last year the bidding started at thirty chapters of Mishnah; I’m not sure that I managed that number over the last year (I think I managed about twenty-nine).  Plus I’m working my way through the Mishnah in order, whereas people seemed to be assigned Mishnayot based on the number of chapters they bid for, so I would probably get some other section to what I am currently studying.  Plus, as I’ve said before, I’m really sensitive about how much Torah study I do and the fact that I never went to yeshiva and can’t really study Talmud independently, so this is very anxiety- and inferiority-provoking for me (from that point of view, bidding in terms of study is more equitable than bidding in monetary donations, but still creates a hierarchy of high-achievers and under-achievers, and I’m very much in the second category).  In any case, I object to advertising how much Torah study I do and I don’t even want the honours on offer (mostly reading stuff out or carrying the Torah scrolls in the dancing).

So, I had decided to skip Simchat Torah this year, although I’m undecided about how much to skip: leave before the dancing starts or miss Ma’ariv (the evening service) too?  Or don’t even go for Mincha on Shmini Atzeret?  I’m not sure, and it will partly depend how depressed I feel and when they do the auctioning.  The problem is that the three biggest honours (chatan Torahchattan Bereshit and the person called to the Torah with all the community’s children), which are not auctioned, but given to three people who have done a lot for the community, are going to friends of mine.  I feel I ought to go to support them, but I just can’t face it.  My Dad said to email them to apologise, but I can’t face admitting to all my issues (one knows a bit about my issues, one knows that I have some health problems, but not that they are mental health problems and one doesn’t know why I’m mysteriously absent from shul for long periods at all).  So, this will be a more difficult Simchat Torah than most.  I hope I can just quietly slip away after Shmini Atzeret Mincha, but I have a feeling that it won’t be that easy.