I’ll try to keep this brief, as it’s gone 11.30pm as I sit down to write (nearly 12.30am now I’m proof-reading), but it’s been a packed “three day event” (as my parents refer to Shabbat (the Sabbath) and two days of Yom Tov (festival) consecutively). My sleep pattern has been thoroughly messed up by Tikkun Leil (staying up all night studying Torah) and long afternoon naps, so I doubt I’ll get to sleep soon anyway.
I got to some of the “learning” events (Orthodox Jews tend to refer to Torah study as “learning” because of a quirk of Yiddish; I think it makes it sound misleadingly basic). Some were definitely better than others. I was glad to do Tikkun Leil, as I mentioned, even though the topic (what Torah subjects should one be studying) was something liable to make me feel religiously inadequate. The big inadequacy-making event was today, however, when a whole bunch of local shuls (synagogues) got together at my parents’ shul for two hour study fest. I couldn’t find a chevruta (study partner) from my shul, so the Rosh Kollel paired me up with someone who turned out to be a nice guy, but far ahead of me in Talmudic studies. He just raced through the set texts, through the Gemara and Rashi and on to other Rishonim and Acharonim (Medieval and modern commentators). I could barely follow any of it. For one thing, the sheer number of people in the hall meant that my autistic brain was overwhelmed with noise and half the time I couldn’t even hear my study partner. Even when I could, I struggled to think of anything to say, which I suspect/hope is an autistic executive function issue, the same thing that makes me stop and ask for more time to think in job interviews. My brain just doesn’t work that fast. Then add in the social element of chevruta learning, the fact that not only do I have to engage the part of my brain that deals with Talmud, but I have to engage the part that deals with social interactions too, and it’s all too much for me, even without the fact that my partner had a natural flair for Talmudic study and just tore through everything. I used to have this problem with paired or group learning in school, too, so it’s not a problem unique to religious study for me.
Then there was a shiur (lecture) that was supposed to clarify the sources, but just left me more confused; it didn’t help that I could barely hear it. Then there were songs I didn’t know and by the time we got to the end, I was wondering if my Judaism is really the same as that of everyone else in the hall. There were a couple of people I was at school with in the hall, people who were not my intellectual equals at school, but who have become rabbis and can “learn” properly. I can’t really study Talmud, although I try a little. I mostly study Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and theology for Torah study. No self-respecting yeshiva bochur (rabbinical seminary student) wastes time studying Nakh (the non-Mosaic books of the Bible) (unless they’re at a Religious Zionist yeshiva) or theology. My theology shelf is full of suspect people like Rabbi Sacks, Rav Steinsaltz and Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, let alone outright non-Orthodox and unacceptable thinkers like Abraham Joshua Heschel and Emil Fackenheim. (Rav Soloveitchik just about gets a pass because he was a halakhicist and has yichus (great ancestors)).
Fortunately, the Rosh Kollel in his closing address spoke about the concept of kiddush hashem, sanctifying God’s name by being a good person publicly or even privately abstaining from temptation because of God’s command rather than from fear of being caught. So I felt maybe I can do something as a Jew. It is depressing, though. I am struggling to be Jewish at the moment, simply because I can’t engage with texts and enjoy Jewish life the way I am supposed to do, because of depression and autism.
The good stuff: as well as getting to these study events, I stayed at shul for Shacharit (Morning prayers) after Tikkun Leil; I also – somehow, do not ask me how – got up this morning for shul. I still got there very late (shul started at 8.45am; I turned up around 10.00am and struggled to get a seat as it was packed), but I got there. Hopefully I will make it again on Shabbat. I did feel a bit more comfortable being in the shul than I have done recently (admittedly this was before the upsetting study session today).
I read a lot, both my novel (Fatherland by Robert Harris, thankfully not as depressing as a ‘what if Hitler won?’ alternate universe-Holocaust-murder mystery-thriller could be) and Tanakh. I finished reading Nevi’im, the Prophets. I’ve read Tanakh through from the first page to the last in English and I’ve read every individual book in Hebrew (I struggled with the Aramaic bits), but not in the right order, as I alternated ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ books (‘easy’ and ‘hard’ in terms of prose vs. poetry and early vs. late Hebrew). For several years, I’ve been reading through Tanakh in Hebrew and in order, sometimes with commentaries. It’s taken a long time because (a) it’s long and (b) it’s longer if you add in commentaries and (c) it’s really hard to read a language that isn’t your first language if you’re very depressed, especially if it’s in archaic poetry. I’ve gone through periods of months when I just haven’t read anything. So this was a milestone. I can’t remember how long it’s taken me to get through Nevi’im, probably four or five years. Hopefully it won’t take as long to get through Ketuvim, the third and final section of Tanakh, but realistically it will take as long or longer, as I have more commentaries to read plus significant numbers of Aramaic chapters as well as some of the most complex poetry in Tanakh.
I had a difficult discussion with my parents on the first night of Yom Tov over dinner, just before I went to shul for the Tikkun Leil. We got on to my career and my struggles with finding a library job. They encouraged me to try to sell some of my writing. Like, now, not in months or years when I think I’ve finally got something good enough. I went into autistic/depressive black and white “It’s impossible” mode and actually ran off to my bedroom and lay in bed in the dark fully dressed for a few minutes, which I guess might be a form of autistic shutdown, albeit from emotional overload rather than sensory overload (I do this kind of running away a lot when I’m emotional; I’m not sure if it’s really the same as the types of shutdowns other autistic people experience). Still, I did calm down after a few minutes and finish the conversation with my parents as well as getting to Tikkun Leil (it looked for a minute like I would just go to bed and stay there).
I realised I have a couple of contacts I can email for advice about starting to write professionally. I can also write to the Jewish newspapers and see if they have submission guides. Perhaps also Doctor Who Magazine, although lately they don’t run the kind of analytical articles I could write. I have a couple of ideas for articles about mental health and autism in the Jewish community for the mainstream (non-religious) Jewish newspapers – they publish quite a bit about mental health, although really the articles need to be more in the frum (religious) newspapers, but I don’t know if I have the right contacts for that or if they would print anything on mental health and autism, especially articles saying that people with mental illness or autism might not function in the community the way they “should” (e.g. my experiences above). So, hopefully this week I can send some emails and try to work out what I can write. I am nervous about approaching people for help. I always am, I guess because at school showing signs of weakness was a fatal mistake, and also because I feel, “Why should anyone help me? Why would they think I’m worth helping?” Plus there’s the element of “All beginnings are difficult” (as the Talmud says).
I also came across a passage in a book that resonated with me. It was a short piece, just a couple of paragraphs, in an anthology of essays on Judaism. It was by Rabbi Dr Abraham Twerski, who is a Hasidic rabbi and practising psychiatrist in the USA who has written extensively on Judaism and mental health issues. It was just a short thing saying that some people go out of their way to give others the benefit of the doubt, but beat themselves up about every little mistake and that this is not a positive behaviour and that we should be realistic with ourselves. So, it seemed significant that I “happened” to come across that passage over the long weekend.
So, that was Shabbat and Yom Tov. It was probably objectively quite good, but it’s hard for me to feel positive feelings, while the negative ones (like the study session today) are overwhelming. Some of that is the nature of depression, of course. I realise I haven’t explicitly spoken about depression in this post, only autism and low self-esteem, but it’s always there, in the background, poisoning my mood and warping my view of myself and my life. Now I need to have something to eat, watch some Blake’s 7 and go to bed.