Quotidian Piety

I struggled today at work again. There was actually a reasonable amount of work for me to do; I didn’t have to do the paper-sorting (which isn’t make-work, but also isn’t a priority if there are other things going on). However, I felt like I was struggling and making mistakes again. I was going to go to the bank as it’s the end of the month. In the afternoon, J gave me a new task to do. I spent a while on it, then realised I needed to go to the bank if I wanted to be back by the end of the day. That in turn meant I needed to close off the banking. So I rushed through the new task and then didn’t finish it when I realised I was making mistakes, and I rushed to close off the banking. I had made a mistake on the banking spreadsheet too which took a while to find. I just hope I didn’t make a mistake paying in the cheques. I’ve done that before. I’ve put the wrong number on the paying-in slip and the bank queried it.

I found the bank trip difficult too. The crowds in London, the noise, the omnipresent video screens… it was just autistic overload for me. When I got back, J said I could finish for the day (not because of the overload, but because it was the end of the day), but I felt overwhelmed and sat in the Beit Midrash upstairs for a bit (it was quiet, and I turned off most of the lights, but the security guard turned them back on and told me to leave them on. I didn’t realise they were supposed to be on), then davened Minchah (said Afternoon Prayers) before coming home. The journey was stressful, with too many people and someone next to me invading my personal space. I would say ‘manspreading,’ but it was a teenage girl! Someone in the carriage had noisy music on their phone too. I felt pretty much physically attacked by all of it.

Then my sister and brother-in-law came over for dinner. It was fun, but I was feeling really burnt out and overloaded. Then I spoke to E (we Skype every day that isn’t Shabbat or Yom Tov), which at least didn’t exhaust me further. I should really go to bed, but I wanted to get some of my thoughts down.

Some autistic people see autism as a “super-power,” like the homo superior of the David Bowie song Oh! You Pretty Things. I don’t really experience it that way. On days like today, it feels like a real disability.

***

Someone on the autism forum said she was a failure because she hasn’t achieved anything except getting married and having children. Unthinkingly, I said that I didn’t think she was a failure, mostly because I would say that to anyone. I do think that getting married is an achievement for someone on the spectrum, and having children is an achievement for anyone (strictly speaking, it should be that raising children well is an achievement). I realised, of course, that I view myself as a failure despite being married (sort of) and having a part-time job. I feel that I do my job badly, and that it’s not full-time, and I don’t know if I’ll ever have children or how I would cope with them. It made me think a bit about what I mean by ‘achievement.’

Everyone says that Western society prioritises wealth, fame, status, looks, power – lots of things I think are not worthwhile. Realistically, most people are probably the same. Apparently research shows that most people really care about more spiritual or caring goals, but that they think that no one else does. Even so, it’s true that the media promotes wealth, fame, status etc. But I’m not interested.

I should say that my religion provides meaningful achievements for me, but too often it turns into a list of things I don’t do, or don’t do “enough”: (communal)(meaningful) prayer, Torah (Talmud) study, mitzvah (commandment) performance, charity and so on. At work I sometimes come into contact (albeit usually through looking at old minutes and letters) with extremely rich people who are able to devote significant amounts of money and time to charity and community work. I can’t do this. I feel that my ‘issues’ (autism, social anxiety, disordered sleep etc.) interferes too much with my religious life.

Today I came across the term, ‘quotidian piety,’ coined by historian Elisheva Baumgarten to describe the daily religious practices of Medieval Jews and how they were intertwined to their lives. I wonder if I have ‘quotidian piety.’ I do religious things every day. I wonder if they are ‘achievements’ in this sphere. I wrote the other day about trying to move towards God instead of more concrete, but often unachievable, goals. I guess that is a similar idea in terms of seeing small steps as an achievement.

Lately I have been thinking less about wanting/needing to write and be published as an achievement. This is probably because I’ve been too busy with E’s visa application and Yom Tov to think about it, but I’d like to try to keep it up. I don’t think it’s sensible to think of writing as an achievement or peg to hang my self-esteem on at the moment.

“…an almost Proustian display of modern Existentialist football…”

(Title quote from one of the Monty Python sketches I think about periodically, which happened to be in the episode I watched earlier, about a pretentious football commentator interviewing a monosyllabic footballer. It’s not really relevant, I just think it’s funny.)

There’s a lot I want to say, but I am totally exhausted, and overwhelmed with things to do. However, as I’m too exhausted to do much now, I’ll try to blog at least some of the things on my mind.

I flippantly remarked on Angela’s blog the other day that I’ve been tired for decades. I felt somewhat bad about it afterwards, as that was a post about tiredness through serious physical illness, but I’m not sure that tiredness from depression, autistic exhaustion and a sleep disorder is really less “real” or worthy of note. At any rate, I struggled to sleep again last night, although not so badly as some nights, and then struggled to get going in the morning, only to discover that while I was asleep, E had asked me to send her a particular document needed for the visa again, as I had forgotten to sign it. To be honest, I hadn’t forgotten, so much as not realised I need to do it (yes, classic autistic, “If you don’t explicitly ask for it, he won’t realise he needs to do it”). This delayed me a little, but I cut my usual truncated Shacharit (Morning Prayers) even shorter and got to work on time.

Work was exceedingly dull and I found some mistakes I had made weeks ago that at least went unnoticed by my boss. I listened to podcasts while sorting through papers then felt guilty that I had decreased my efficiency, although I’m not at all sure that that was the case, as the task is dull, but also difficult, as most of the papers I’m dealing with at the moment are legal or financial, but also twenty years or more old. They should be ripe for throwing away, but I worry that my legal and financial ignorance will lead me to throw away something we need. At the moment, I’m just trying to produce a general list of what everything is.

***

I have a tendency to take the world’s troubles on my shoulders, at least sometimes. Lately I’ve been feeling concern for lonely people on the autism forum, abuse survivors and current victims in the Jewish community, as well as continuing sadness and perhaps anger at God for my parents’ friends’ late son. I do worry sometimes that abusers and gett refusers (men who refuse to give their wives the religious divorce they want) in the frum (religious Jewish) community will find a loophole to the Next World via their Torah study and communal involvement and somehow evade punishment. This is irrational, as I don’t believe God is as easily deceived, or has His values as warped, as the frum community sometimes is and, in any case, I believe spiritual punishment is inherent in the action in ways that are too complicated for me to explain now; you can’t avoid Divine punishment any more than you can avoid being in your own body. But I do think about it a lot.

***

I came across the idea a number of years ago that lots of frum people want to fast-forward through this time of year, the Jewish autumn festival season. For them it’s a time of painful self-examination and guilt. It is that for me too, with added autistic exhaustion and peopling, social anxiety, low self-esteem and disordered sleep issues, not to mention autistic issues with work routine changes and overload from working more intensively. I could also say that their guilt over sins is excessive and misplaced, whereas mine is logical and deserved, but I’m not going to go there (which is probably a good sign in and of itself). I feel like that now, with all the extra overwhelm of my life at the moment too, but today for the first time I felt frustrated that I haven’t worked on my novel for weeks because I’ve been focused on my wedding and E’s visa application. I’m glad, as I wondered if I had given up on writing. However, I still doubt I will have time to put pen to paper (or word processor) for another month.

One extra thing that is hard at this time of year is having alexithymia, difficulty noticing and understanding my own emotions. It’s hard to be sure I love and am in awe of God and that I love Torah, or that I have joy in the festivals and in being Jewish when I struggle to notice love for my family, let alone a being I can’t see and Who is the source of everything bad that ever happened to me as well as everything good. Mostly I try to “deduce” my emotions by my actions, which I guess must mean I feel something positive about God if I do all this religious stuff.

Related to this is my feelings about the frum community. On an Orthodox Conundrum podcast I listened to today, they spoke about the importance of being part of a community for spiritual growth. I’ve never really had this, at least not in the way they meant. Someone on the autism forum the other day suggested that while I say I want to be part of a community, I also seem to have negative feelings about it (I said making friends in the community seemed “terrifying and impossible”). I don’t really have an answer this.

***

I suspect the answer to all of the above is to “Let go and let God,” as the 12 Step movement says, but I’ve never been very good at that. It’s hard to “Let go and let God” when you can’t work out how much you trust God.

***

Good things that happened today:

E sent the visa application off, despite consistent issues with the third-party website.

I was told I can keep paying reduced shul (synagogue) membership fees because I’m on a low salary. I feel vaguely guilty about this and don’t know why, although as I have been paying money to a shul I haven’t been attending, and as I will continue doing this for some months more, I feel the shul is still getting a good deal.

My birthday present from E, The Hidden Order of Intimacy: Reflections on the Book of Leviticus by Aviva Gottleib Zornberg finally arrived. The delay, I should say, was on the part of Foyles Bookshop, not E. Zornberg has written several deep books on Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), mixing traditional commentary with ideas from Western philosophy and literature and psychology. She’s very good, but no one expected her to write about the almost entirely legal and purity-focused Vayikra (Leviticus). So I am curious to read it, but will wait until it comes around on the annual Torah cycle next spring.

Also arriving today was the latest Jewish Review of Books (finally) and Doctor Who: The Dis-Continuity Guide. Actually, the latter came yesterday, but it seemed inappropriate to write about it on such a sad day. Then today I went into the charity shop and found a load of interesting-looking books. I already owned a couple of them, perhaps fortunately, but I did buy a copy of Yehudah HaLevi’s Medieval Jewish anti-philosophical philosophical work, The Kuzari for £2, which goes nicely with the Guide for the Perplexed I got for free a few months ago.

Yes, my plan to avoid getting new books until I work my way down the To Read pile is going well. Wait a minute…

Frustrations Not Balanced By Chocolate

I wrote a shortish post yesterday, but WordPress ate half of it and it was too late, and I was too tired, to rewrite. This post is some of what survived and more.

I felt down and lonely as soon as my parents left yesterday for their short holiday in sunny (or not sunny) Arundel. I’m not sure why I should feel down when I saw them a couple of hours earlier. As I’ve mentioned before, I like my own company, but for some reason I don’t understand, I don’t like being in the house by myself. It’s probably partly a product of the size of the house. I didn’t get so lonely when living in a tiny studio flat, but I did get somewhat lonely, particularly on non-work days when I had no distractions. And, unlike in the past, I have my frustrations at being so far from E and not knowing when we will be together again, which feels worse than being single, somewhat to my surprise (I know that’s probably naive to anyone who has been in a long-term relationship before, but my relationship experience up to this point has not been great). It may also be true that I have worse abandonment fears than I thought, which would make sense, given some formative childhood experiences.

I went for a run yesterday, but came back with a relatively mild, but intermittent headache, nausea and a feeling of dizziness and light-headedness that didn’t fully pass until I went to bed. I find the latter most troubling as it’s new and has no obvious cause (not that the exercise migraines have much of an obvious cause, but at least they’re an acknowledged thing).  I did some Torah study and spent a bit of time on my tax return, but feel it would probably be better if I did no work/chores at all and relaxed OR worked hard and got some of these tasks out of the way, but I seem to be unable to do either. I think of myself as a person of extremes, but it’s probably more accurate that I aim for the middle ground, I just don’t always reach it.

I went to bed late, partly because of the failed blog post, and then I struggled to sleep again. The advantage of a five hour time difference with my wife is that she’s still awake when I can’t sleep at 1.30am! I was ruminating again on autism/Asperger’s and feeling I have plenty of negative symptoms, but none of the “superpowers” some people on the spectrum talk about. E thinks my care for grammar and spelling might become a superpower if I can set myself up as a proof-reader and copy editor. She’s probably right, but working out the practical steps to set up my own business and find clients is frightening.

I did eventually fall asleep, but had a disturbed night’s sleep. I can’t remember clearly what happened; I remember feeling ill during the night and suspect it was trouble breathing (sleep apnoea), but can’t remember in detail. I’m left more with an impression of spending the night feeling ill in an unspecified way and worrying that I would have to call in sick today. It’s strange how something so potentially disturbing can happen and not get into my brain properly to be dealt with on waking because I’m more than half asleep.

Work today began with J giving me Galaxy chocolate. It had come free with the printer cartridges, for some reason, and he doesn’t eat chalav stam (milk not supervised by a Jew from milking).  He tried to give me three bars, but I only took one as three seemed a lot, particularly as Mum and I are trying to lose weight.  This seemed like a good start to the work day, but I was bored at work and slightly ill from lack of sleep, resulting in being easily distracted and therefore feeling guilty.  The Economist said last week that attempting to achieve perfection at work is counter-productive.  There we should aim for excellence, which doesn’t seem much more possible to me.  I think vague competence is all I’m likely to achieve at work at the moment, and maybe not even that.

On the way home, I went to the pharmacy only to discover that my clomipramine won’t be in until tomorrow evening.  I only had two 50mg tablets left, but I take two at night and two in the morning.  I am splitting the dose so I took 50mg tonight and will take another 50mg before volunteering in the morning, which I hope will keep me on an even keel until the afternoon.

***

One paragraph I couldn’t salvage from yesterday’s post was about writing.  I have so much going on with my life at the moment that I have neither the time nor the inclination to write or to try to find an agent.  It’s not even on my radar at the moment.  Inasmuch as I have creative thoughts at all, they’re focused on my plans for a Facebook group for people on the margins of the Orthodox Jewish community.  I am now pretty certain that I will go back on Facebook at some point (ugh) to do this.

I started writing a list of potential group posts and got up to twenty.  Granted some probably won’t work out, but it’s a good start for my first day of serious thought about it.  I’m worried about finding members, though, as I don’t really know people to invite to start it off.  Most of my friends aren’t Orthodox (or aren’t Jewish) so wouldn’t want to join, and I probably wouldn’t want to invite the Orthodox friends I do have, as I wouldn’t want them to see some of the things I want to say in this forum, to realise that I see myself on the margins of the Orthodox world and why I feel like that.

***

A thought while shopping after work: when I was a child, I was, at least to some extent, a “little professor,” Dr Hans Asperger’s term for children with Asperger’s Syndrome, meaning a child who is very serious and ‘lectures’ on his special interests.  My Mum even called me an “absent-minded professor.”  Yet I was not a little adult; when I became an adult, I was not suddenly better at communicating with people.  I still could not connect with people.  I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, but it seemed worth noting.

***

I finished A Guide for the Perplexed by Dara Horn, but am not sure what I think about it.  E said she felt the same when she finished it.

One In, One Out

I spent the afternoon printing and scanning bank statements for E’s visa application (to prove we will have enough money), only to discover they need to be on bank stationery, stamped by the bank or accompanied by a letter from the bank to authenticate them.  I know from experience that my bank simply will not print bank statements more than three months old, so it looks like I’m going to have to phone them to get some kind of appointment to get the statements printed or authenticated there, and also at my building society, as I need proof for both my current account and my savings account.  This is yet another hassle and has left me feeling close to burnout.  Other than that, I did go for a walk (I need it after that), but did very little Torah study, or anything else productive.

I feel exhausted and close to being overwhelmed and perhaps burning out.  I’ve gone in the space of a week and a half from getting married (civil wedding) in a foreign country, to leaving my bride of one day (who is still weak from COVID) to come back to the UK, to going straight back to work, then having my aunt and uncle staying with us (me and my parents) and trying to sort out the visa so E can follow me to the UK ASAP.  I haven’t had time to process the civil wedding, to process being separated from E for an indeterminate period, or even to just be myself for long periods without having to mask around other people.  And on top of all that, I have the oncoming stresses (religious, emotional, practical, social) of the Jewish autumn holiday season and the slow dying of the light as we get to autumn, with the risk of triggering depression and maybe anxiety in me.  I really feel like I need some self-care time, but I’m not sure when I can do that and I feel guilty about even thinking about it.  I watched Doctor Who for twenty-five minutes over dinner, but it doesn’t really begin to address that.

My parents are away next week.  That sounds like it might be a break from peopling, but my mood does tend to dip when I’m in my house alone, even aside from extra chores.  What I really need is to live with my best friend, but she’s in New York.

***

I sometimes I feel I have a “one in, one out” system on my blog whereby when I gain a new reader, I lose an old one, and I feel that’s happened recently.  I’m sad and vaguely worried that I did something wrong, but also aware that friendships tend to be transient, particularly online ones.  I do wonder sometimes about blog readers of years past who just vanished one day, particularly if they weren’t active bloggers themselves for me to see if they were still doing anything, but I know I’ve also stopped reading blogs for reasons that have nothing to do with the writers and everything to do with where I was with my life.

I did write something in comment on someone else’s blog recently about being diagnosed autistic (this was someone who doesn’t know about this blog and only knows me via my old, non-anonymous, pre-autism Blogger identity).  I felt in a way that I needed to apologise for and explain my sometimes-inept behaviour over the years, but I think I just freaked her out.  I guess it is a big thing to suddenly write about in a post that wasn’t entirely connected.  I do tend to feel the need to apologise to people for how I behaved before I knew I was on the spectrum when maybe I should just draw a line under it and move on.  My first novel was, on some level, a way of doing this, which I guess is one reason why I’m tempted to just rewrite to remove most of the autism stuff.

The Bravest Orangutan in Britain

The title isn’t relevant, I’m just too stressed and overwhelmed to think up something more appropriate. It’s a joke from the Fawlty Towers episode I just watched (The Psychiatrist).

I’m feeling very stressed today.  My aunt and uncle have been here over the weekend.  We had enjoyable Shabbat (Sabbath) meals and I was, apparently, “on form” (meaning funny and witty), but after Friday night dinner and Saturday lunch I fell asleep immediately.  On Friday night I slept for an hour or so, woke up, changed into my pyjamas, read for five minutes and went back to sleep for ten hours or more.  On Saturday afternoon I slept for nearly three hours.   Last night I was exhausted and went to bed early (for me) at 11.30pm and slept for twelve hours or so again.  I find peopling very draining, especially when the people in question are very loud and exhausting.  I didn’t go with my Mum and aunt and uncle to my sister’s today as I got up too late, which was probably a blessing in disguise.

The other reason I went to bed early last night is that we found out that the son of good friends of my parents is receiving palliative care for leukaemia.  He’s a few years younger than me and he’s basically spent his entire adult life fighting it.  He would go into remission and try to get his life back on track (I think he kept dropping out of higher education because of it), but then after a year or two it would come back.  Then he would have another bone marrow transplant or aggressive chemo or whatever and would get better for a while, until it would come back again.  I know it sometimes (often) feels like I lost so much of my adult life to undiagnosed autism and mental illness, but he has lost basically all of his to leukaemia, and now it seems he’s going to lose the fight completely.  It’s really tragic.  It upset all of us a lot and we don’t really know what to do.  I just felt overwhelmed and exhausted and went to bed early.

I’ve been struggling with family stress today (beyond what I’ve written here), and guilt at bad interactions with my parents.  I also started to fill out my tax return for the tax year April 2021 to April 2022, which was stressful and confusing, and then I helped E fill out her visa application, which was also stressful and confusing.  This was a lot of bureaucracy and form-filling for one day, and there is more to do tomorrow (I’m working on Tuesday this week rather than Monday).  It has left me pretty exhausted, burnt out and unable to do very much except maybe watch TV.

***

I described myself as “married” on my tax return.  It felt slightly strange.

***

Mum was speaking to one of her friends and mentioned my airport issues.  Friend said that she has asked for “assisted travel” at airports when travelling with her mother (who is elderly and frail) and/or daughter (who has ME).  Someone then comes around the airport with them and guides them through check-in, security and so on.  Mum said I should do the same.

I had a visceral reaction against this and I’m not sure why.  After all, I’ve just bought a hidden disability lanyard, so it’s not that I’m in denial or afraid of identifying as disabled.  I guess I just feel that I should (“Should”) be able to cope by myself with a minimum of help or that I can cope by myself, as long as people give me extra processing time and allow for sensory overload (which they may or may not do if they see the card and lanyard, particularly outside the UK where it isn’t known).  Maybe I feel that I don’t need that level of help or even that I don’t deserve it.  I guess it has taken me a long time to accept that I am “disabled” (rather than “ill” – weirdly, the things seem very different to me) and need help and maybe there are limits to what I can accept about this right now.

***

I feel like I’m reading too many books, and too many heavy books, but I’m not sure how to stop.  Do I just focus on one book at a time, or try to creep forward slowly with all of them?  Or something between the two?  Most of them are so heavy-going that I often get to a point in the evening when I need to relax and unwind and can’t face reading any of them because they’re so heavy, so I watch TV instead.

They are good books and I don’t want to abandon them, but they mostly aren’t fun.  Even the novel I’m reading, Dara Horn’s A Guide for the Perplexed suffers from two unlikeable protagonists.  One is a super-clever person who was bullied as a child because of her intelligence, which I relate to, but then again she remained super-clever as an adult and became a tech millionaire, which I do not relate to.  She’s also quite manipulative and arrogant.  Her sister is pretty much a failure in life, which I relate to, but she’s also ruthless and manipulative, even more so than her sister.  I don’t really relate to either of them or feel that invested in their story; I’m carrying on because of curiosity about the narrative and themes and especially for the historical sub-plots featuring real-life Jewish figures Solomon Schechter and Rambam (Maimonides).

Just to make things more complicated, I started reading The Hafetz Hayyim on the Holy Days in advance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement).  I was already reading several Jewish books, but I felt I should read something related to the upcoming festivals in addition to my other Torah reading.  At least it’s a short book, so I should finish it in time reading about five pages a day.

***

Lately I feel as if I need to pick my first novel apart and abandon the autobiographical stuff about a Jewish man autism and depression and expand the other part, about a Jewish woman trapped in an abusive marriage, into a whole novel, or at least a novella.  I would need to think up some more plot to get to novel length.  I just did an experiment and deleted all the chapters solely dealing with the autistic character.  I was left with about 60,000 words.  80,000 is considered the minimum length for an adult novel, so I would have to write about 20,000 words, probably more, as I would have to cut some material in the chapters that feature both characters.  That’s probably a minimum of two or three months of consistent writing for me at the moment (part-time, low energy, sleeping through mornings), probably more as I’ll be using time for wedding planning and similar tasks instead of writing.

***

I have things I want to say that I don’t have the time or energy to write here, or which I feel would not interest readers here, or which I can’t write here for reasons of lashon hara (gossip).  The time/energy factor is actually the biggest one; the others I could deal with by writing a private or password-protected post, but not having time or energy prevents that.  I feel it might help me to process things.  I feel there are a lot of unprocessed thoughts whizzing round my head lately, some related to where I am in life, but others unrelated.  I feel that I need to set some of them down, but struggle to find the time even to get my thoughts in order.  Most of them aren’t relevant to bring up in a therapeutic context either.

Similarly, I would like to have the time and energy to write a weekly devar Torah (Torah thought) too, as that feels like something else where I need time to process the sedra (Torah reading) each week.

And, yes, I know that I am currently/will shortly be: getting married/organising a wedding; moving house; and setting myself up as self-employed and looking for additional work (which will involve increasing my social media presence), all while still coming to terms with my autism and trying to work out if I have a sleep disorder and how to treat it.  Any of these things would be challenging individually, but I’m juggling them all at once, as well as other things like my current job and getting ready (practically and spiritually) for the autumn Jewish festival season, doing my tax return, helping E with her visa application and so on.  So I guess it’s normal to feel overwhelmed, but that doesn’t make it easier to cope with.

I’m sufficiently overwhelmed that I will probably watch TV for a bit before bed, as reading seems too daunting…

“On and on and on/Keep onrocking, baby/Till the night is gone”

Another post pasted from Word because of WordPress problems.  I hope the formatting is OK!  EDIT: It isn’t, but it’s too late, and I’m too tired, to sort it.  Sorry!  Try guessing where the paragraph breaks go!  Think of it as an educational game! Shabbat (the Sabbath) was OK, albeit without shul (synagogue) for reasons I explained in my last post. I often wonder if/how I’m going to get back into being a regular shul-goer. I also slept too much.  I drank some really strong coffee (about twice as strong as I usually make it) after Shabbat lunch to stay awake, but I fell asleep anyway. I really do think Shabbat meals with my talkative parents really wipes me out at the moment. I just end up going into autistic shutdown (lying down with eyes shut, not doing anything) and after that, it’s really easy to fall asleep, even after having drunk coffee. I do wonder how I will cope with having children in my forties, with autism. Today I struggled to get up again and felt pretty anxious and overwhelmed when I did.  I spoke to my rabbi mentor and did a few things, mostly preparation for my New York trip, although I haven’t really started packing yet.  I’ll have to do that all tomorrow.  I feel like I wasted the day, but that’s probably being a little unfair on myself.  The temperature is lower than in the heatwave(s), but it’s been quite humid and uncomfortable, which just makes things even harder for me. *** Shabbat is going out (finishing — we anthropomorphise Shabbat as a person who “comes in” and “goes out”) about nine o’clock now, down from about ten-thirty in the midst of summer, a reminder that autumn is round the corner. I don’t mind autumn so much, at least in theory, but it tends to be dominated by the autumn Jewish festivals which I find increasingly difficult to navigate, for some reason. It’s also a reminder that winter, with its lack of sunlight, bad weather and low mood, is coming. Of course, this year I want winter, as E and I need to get through it, or most of it, to get to our religious wedding, although it’s going to be hard struggling through winter on separate continents (neither of us is good at wintering). I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, just that everything feels a bit overwhelming. *** It’s probably not that surprising that I feel overwhelmed, as I have to travel alone to the US in two days, masking (in the “wearing a mask” sense, not the “pretending not to be autistic” sense, although doubtless there will be some of that too), which I’ve got out of the habit of doing.  It’s no longer compulsory on planes, but E and I are worried about me catching COVID and missing our wedding, especially as the COVID rate in New York is about four times higher than the rate in London at the moment.  Then we’re getting married, or at least what I’m thinking of as Wedding Phase 1 (civil wedding). Then there will be perhaps eight months dealing with civil and religious wedding bureaucracy, planning a wedding in the space of a few weeks and house-hunting, probably also while trying to set up some kind of subsidiary career for myself as a proof-reader. All this while still dealing with autism (obviously) and probably some kind of sleep disorder.  I guess it does seem a lot, put that way. Somewhere along the line I’ll hopefully become an uncle too, which is exciting, but will entail more family time. E and I are both completely ready, emotionally, to get married now, so it’s frustrating that we’re going to be delayed for months. Given that we’ve both had some nerves at one time or another, it’s good that we’re both ready now! Even so, the wait is difficult. I spoke to my rabbi mentor today. Aside from being another person on the growing list of people who want to see photos of the civil wedding when it happens (I didn’t know that many people cared!), he agreed with me that living with E rather than my parents will be very good for my mental health and lifestyle generally.  I love my parents, but their personalities and lifestyles are different to my own, or how I want mine to be, whereas E’s are a lot closer. *** I checked my NHS COVID pass (vaccination certification) to check it would be easily visible at the airport.  My heart skipped a beat when it said that the COVID pass was no longer available!  However, this turns out to be for domestic use; the travel pass is still there. *** I finished reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. SPOILERS!  I was pleased that the romantic plot was left somewhat unresolved.  Other than that, a lot happened the way I thought it would, except that I thought Eleanor was going to make a mess of planning the office Christmas lunch. Weirdly, the predictability doesn’t really feel like a drawback.  I wanted things to go that way. The novel won the Costa Book Award for First Novel; I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I’m fairly confident that I can write something vaguely in the same ballpark in terms of quality, although attracting an agent, a publisher and readers depends on a lot more than just that.  I think I should include Eleanor… on my standard query letter for my first novel as one of the novels that the agent should compare mine too (as in, “This novel will appeal to readers who enjoyed the portrayal of loneliness in Eleanor Oliphant is  Completely Fine”).  All my other comparison novels are Jewish-themed ones, albeit mainstream ones, which is perhaps off-putting for agents looking for a mainstream novel rather than a “niche” one. I’m reading a couple of big, hardback books that I can’t take to New York and I’m trying to get to sensible pausing points in them, as well as finishing The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know, which continues to make me feel uncomfortable in various different, and perhaps contradictory, ways.  That’s probably a conversation better suited for therapy (or E) than my blog, although it probably is a conversation(s) worth having sooner rather than later.  To be fair, I have started both conversations, but they’re really the type of conversations you have to keep coming back to periodically and I’m less good at that. I’ve got to a reasonable pausing point with the novel I’m writing too.  I find that I’m still doing research as I write as I was too excited to start writing to do all my research first.  In any case, I remembered that, for my MA dissertation, I was advised to start writing early in the research process, as research informs writing, but writing also informs research.  I think that holds for fiction as much as academic writing.  I’m also still revising my plan for later chapters.  Writers supposedly divide into planners (who plan) and pantsers (who, I presume, “write by the seat of their pants”).  I’m not really either.  I don’t think I could start a novel without a good idea of where I’m going with it, but I don’t think I could stick rigidly to a plan either.  As I write, I sometimes get a better idea of what the characters would do, and it isn’t always what I planned for them to do. Alternatively, I realise a plot device is too contrived, or something isn’t working, or I think of a better way of doing things, or a new plot thread, so I tweak the plan as I go along. I’ve written five chapters already, but I think I need to go back and add some passages or chapters with some of my more minor characters, so it’s not a shock when I develop them more later in the novel. That’s the sort of stuff that I can’t really plan in advance, I just intuit it as I go along.  I think I’m a much more intuitive person than a logical one, but I tend to discredit intuition, or just not notice and understand it perhaps due to alexithymia (trouble noticing and understanding emotions), so I try to be super-logical and it doesn’t really work because I’m not really that sort of person.  It’s only really in my writing that I give rein to that intuition. I should probably not write so much about writing fiction when I’ve only written one and a bit unpublished novels and a few unpublished short stories!  It’s not like I’m Stephen King.  I find my creative process fascinating, though, maybe because it’s the only area where I really let myself be intuitive and emotional so openly.

Existential Spirituality

I wonder sometimes about my spiritual life. I feel I have more of a religious life than a spiritual one. I would like to have a more spiritual life, but it’s hard to know where to start, especially from inside a major religion — where do you go when you’re already where you’re supposed to be, and don’t want to leave, but aren’t fully fulfilled? I want more spirituality, not less Judaism. Further, I find ‘spirituality’ a vague and unhelpful term, and Hebrew words like ruchniut aren’t any better.

I used to read a lot of Jewish religious existentialists (not all Orthodox). I found Jewish existentialism an approach that resonated with me more than many approaches in the Orthodox world, so out of curiosity, I searched online for stuff on existentialist spirituality, despite knowing that secular existentialism is very different to religious existentialism.

I found an article on existential spirituality in psychotherapy the other day that says the following:

There are four primary existential ways of being-in-the-world. They include:

  1. Umwelt: Being-with-nature or the physical world.
  2. Mitwelt: Being-with-others or the social world.
  3. Eigenwelt: Being-with-oneself or the world of the self.
  4. Uberwelt: Being-with-the-spiritual or over world.

Boss (1963), Binswanger (1963), and May et al. (1958) described the first three of these existential ways of being. van Deurzen (1988) added the fourth.

I do struggle with several of these areas. I’m able to experience nature well when I’m in a natural setting, but I struggle to find one in the suburbs. It might be good for me to walk more often in a little area of land left wild at the edge of the nearby park (although it only takes five or ten minutes to walk the length of it).

Skipping number two for the moment, I am a lot more OK at being with myself than before. I still have low self-esteem, something worsened by autism-induced mishaps, and some social anxiety and catastrophising, but I’m mostly comfortable being inside my head. I feel positive about my sense of integrity, which ties into my Jewish practice as I practise Judaism less to feel “positive” or “spiritual” in the moment and more because overall I have a feeling of integrity and rightness from acting in accordance with my religious beliefs and as part of a three thousand year old community.

The really hard areas are two and four. I think being with others is very important (this is perhaps the biggest thing I take from Jewish existentialism), and it does help me when I find a way I can interact with others well, but finding that way can be hard. I definitely missed volunteering the last couple of weeks when it was on a break and I felt depressed until it restarted yesterday. The downside is that I feel depressed and burnt out today, which may be cause and effect or may be coincidence.

The fact that I go to shul (synagogue) a lot less than I did seven or eight years ago is probably a negative here too, from a social point of view as much as anything. Communal prayer does create social bonds. In recent years I have gone to shul a lot less, as a result of sleep disruption, social anxiety, changing communities and then COVID. I’m now totally out of the habit of regular shul attendance and struggling to get back into it.

I think my marriage to E might be the biggest positive change I can make here. Following the Talmud, I see marriage as the primary model of a loving relationship (the Talmud sees “Love your neighbour as yourself” applying particularly to marriage) and I think the intimacy (emotional as well as physical) there will help me feel more spiritually-fulfilled. I think already our emotional intimacy has led me to feel better in this way. It is hard at the moment, though, when we are so far apart and know it will be so long until we get married. E said it feels like we should be married now and our current status is a weird aberration, and I agree with her. E also thinks that God wants us to marry so I can help her be more religious and so she can help me to have more fun, which may be true too.

Connecting with God directly is harder. I struggle to connect with God through Torah study, except on occasions when I suddenly gain some new insight. That doesn’t happen often, but maybe I have to do a lot of study to provide “scaffolding” for those moments of connection. But often it’s easy to forget God while studying Torah and just focus on the text as a text. Possibly I should try to get back to reading something inspirational or about personal growth every day.

I have improved my kavannah (mindfulness) in prayer lately, but even then it can be hard to concentrate on God. I can focus on God or on the words of the prayer, but it’s hard to focus on both at once.

I guess a lot of the problem is the subjectivity of what constitutes a spiritual experience or a connection with an invisible God. Maybe I’m trying to over-analyse.

***

I got a phone call from A, the person who seems to be a middleman between me and the psychiatrist. He turned out to be a psychiatric nurse. He said that before my medication was reviewed by the psychiatrist with a view to reducing it, could I tell him what happened about the autism assessment I was referred for in 2019, as they had no further information. I was pretty shocked he didn’t know about my diagnosis. In fact, I don’t think he even knew I was referred for an autism assessment, as he thought it might have been for ADHD (the hospital assesses for both). I offered to scan the report and send it to them, which was fortunate as he said he could write to the GP, but that would take weeks (!). You would think that an advantage of a single, national healthcare provider would be some kind of shared data base, at least within the locality. Honestly, this service is just so useless.

***

I was going to go for a pre-wedding haircut after this, but it started raining really heavily and I decided to go after work tomorrow instead. It’s still quite hot and I think the rain and heat/humidity combination along with the disruption to my plans brought my mood down. I am nervous of having my hair cut by a stranger again. I’ve always found haircuts intrusive, probably for autistic reasons about personal space and sensory stimuli, but for many years now I’ve had tremor in some social situations and haircuts are a major trigger, indeed, they were the first trigger when it started. I hope it doesn’t happen tomorrow.

I forgot to go to shul (I want to go on Wednesday evenings), although I wouldn’t really have had much time to spare. Instead, I submitted my first novel to two more agents, both UK-based. I’m trying to focus on UK agents at the moment. One is Jewish, but is super-influential and well-connected, so I probably won’t be accepted by him. To be honest, I suspect all the agencies on the list I’m using are too big for me and that I need some small boutique agency. E disagrees with me here; I hope she’s right.

***

I got sent £3.34 from Lulu.com, which means someone bought my non-fiction Doctor Who book!

Why D W Stdy Tlmd Wtht Vwls r Pncttn

I’ve been listening to a number of Orthodox Conundrum podcasts about Talmud study lately. On one of them Rabbi Kahn said something along the lines of, “If you don’t know what Talmud study involves, it’s tort law, in a dead language, with no punctuation.” In fact, there are no vowels either, although it’s not all tort law; it actually covers all aspects of life, or at least all aspects of Jewish life in Israel and Babylon a thousand years ago. Tort law is what yeshivahs generally focus on, though, as it’s very hard and is supposed to be good for intellectual development.

I was thinking about the “no punctuation and no vowels” thing. Nowadays you can get editions of the Talmud like the Steinsaltz and the Artscroll that do have the vowels and punctuation added, but these are definitely viewed by most people as lesser and a crutch for poor students, particularly those who did not have a traditional yeshivah education. All these editions with vowels and punctuation include the “classic” page layout too, with the implication being that you should “graduate” to the traditional page at some point. When I study Talmud (which I haven’t been doing so much lately), I do try to study in the original Hebrew/Aramaic, even though I have to use the translation, but these days I study on the page with vowels and punctuation, not the “Vilna Shas” page without them.

I wonder why this is. Torah scrolls are traditionally written without vowels and punctuation too. However, the Masoretes, a group of scribes in the land of Israel from the fifth to tenth centuries, established the authoritative text of Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) including vowels and punctuation. Nowadays, Hebrew Bibles are generally printed with vowels and punctuation. If you want to learn how to read from the unpunctuated, unvocalised Torah scroll, you have to use a special book called a Tikkun which recreates the look of a scroll. I have never encountered anyone who says that this is a crutch and that ideally we should read the Torah unvocalised and unpunctuated.

There may be a few reasons for this. The one that seems most important to me is that the idea of mass Talmud study only goes back seventy years or so. Before then, only the intellectual elite were taught it. However, all boys were taught the Torah (at least in theory), but it would be too much to expect five year olds not just to read an ancient text in a dead language (which is quite a big thing to ask in itself), but to read it without vowels or punctuation too. So everyone was taught with those and it just became accepted as normal.

Another possibility is that some difficult passages in the Talmud can be read multiple ways without vowels and punctuation and that can have halakhic (Jewish legal) impact. Bear in mind that the Talmud is structured as a series of debates, not a law code. Without punctuation, it’s not always easy to tell if it is making a statement, asking a question, asking a rhetorical question or just being sarcastic (yes, the Talmud uses sarcasm). So that might be why we aspire to study in a way that makes those ambiguities more visible, so we are aware of the multiple readings possible and not tied to one specific reading. I’m not 100% convinced by this, though, as the same ambiguities can be found in the Torah. The Torah tells us three times not to cook a kid in its mother’s milk, which is seen as the source for the prohibition on eating meat and dairy together, a major part of the kosher (dietary) laws. Yet in the unvocalised text it can be read just as legitimately as “Do not cook a kid in its mother’s fat,” which would obviously be a very different reading. We rely on oral tradition that it should read ‘milk’ and I think the people who see only unvocalised Talmud study as legitimate would be resistant to making “the masses” aware of an ambiguity like this in such a key halakhic area.

I just think it’s very, very strange and I wonder if on some level it’s about creating artificial boundaries and setting a high entrance bar, initially to ensure only the best students could study, but now to force a high standard on all men (perhaps to separate them from women?).

***

Last night I had a very slight headache before I skyped E. I took some tablets anyway, in case it got worse. Over the course of our conversation, it got a lot worse and I had to leave a bit abruptly when it got too much, although it was probably time to end the call anyway, as it was getting late. I don’t know why it got so much worse after taking meds. It did eventually go after I started using a “kool ‘n’ soothe” strip, but, as is often the case after bad headaches, when it went, I was not feeling at all sleepy — even though by this stage it was 1am! I went to bed very late, although I did fall asleep quickly once I got to bed despite the heat.

I ate some ice cream late at night which seems to be becoming a regular Thursday treat, at least while the heatwaves last. I feel like I can go through the week without junk a bit easier knowing I can have this at the end (I also eat less healthily on Shabbat, although better than in the past). The overall trend for me at the moment is to lose weight, though, which is good. It is a struggle to cut back, even though I actually wasn’t eating that much junk objectively, but clomipramine made all the calories go straight to my belly. It is hard sometimes to get to the end of a hard day and not even allow myself one biscuit.

I woke up again struggling to breathe this morning, lying on my stomach. I go to sleep on my side, but apparently turned over in my sleep. Lying flat is worse for sleep apnoea. I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if I hadn’t been looking for signs of sleep apnoea, as I would have thought I just woke with a start from a dream and that was why I was gasping. This explains to me why I never noticed signs of breathing issues before the doctor suggested it as a reason for disturbed and unrefreshing sleep.

Otherwise it’s the usual end of the week exhaustion/autistic exhaustion/poor sleep exhaustion/whatever exhaustion, worsened by heatwave exhaustion. I did do some novel writing, although I’m a bit ashamed that I had to disconnect the internet to focus. Putting some music on very quietly helped too. Loud music stops me concentrating, but quiet music was neutral or even beneficial for concentrating, which is interesting. I will have to experiment some more with it. I’ve written over 26,000 words now, which is basically a quarter of a novel. I have mixed feelings about it, but I think most authors do.

I’m a bit daunted by the thought of sorting out the wedding paperwork (partly worried I’m going to forget something or leave something out and delay the wedding further), but it’s exciting that E and I will hopefully be married before Pesach (Passover), albeit that that timeline really depends on the Home Office.

Honest Jewish Experience and Novel Submission

I’ve mentioned before that I read therapist Elisheva Liss’ weekly “schmoozeletter,” which combines thoughts on the weekly sedra (Torah reading) with insights from modern psychology and psychotherapy. This week she spoke about people in struggling (but not abusive or clearly not working) marriages. She tries to get them to label their interactions and other aspects of the marriage with marks out of ten, with one for the worst possible experience and ten for the best. Then she tries to get people to accept that a set of perfect tens is unrealistic and that a wider range of values can result in a marriage that, while imperfect, is still rewarding and enjoyable. “Maybe getting to a range of 5-7 would be transformative and beautiful in its own imperfect way, if we stopped fixating on the elusive, unrealistic 10?”

I wondered if I should apply this to my religious life. Maybe I’m looking for perfect tens for my davening (prayer), Torah study, mitzvah (commandment) performance, middot (character traits), emunah (faith) and so on. Perhaps I can accept a religious life that is good enough rather than perfect. I haven’t, as yet, assessed the different parts of my religious life and I’m not sure that giving them an exact score is a good idea, but instead I should try to feel that I don’t have to have perfect concentration and connection when davening, I don’t have to have amazing insights every time I study Torah and so on in order to have a meaningful religious life. I just have to be having a better than average experience regularly.

Part of the problem is knowing what I actually FEEL when davening/studying Torah/etc.? I don’t have an official diagnosis of alexithymia (difficulty recognising and distinguishing my own emotions), but one therapist was very sure that I have that difficulty and that is my own experience too. When I feel that my davening or my Torah study lacks a feeling of connection or joy, perhaps the issue is recognising and distinguishing the emotions rather than actually feeling them. This is supported by the fact that I continued with davening and Torah study during the years when I was severely depressed, often at a reduced level, but it was important for me to do something and that probably indicates more than fear and certainly more than just habit.

Likewise, I believe that God exists, and I can tell that I hold this belief much more strongly than I have in the past, so the fact that I don’t feel a strong connection to Him may be a product of unrecognised emotions rather than absent emotions. That said, thinking about connection with God is an inherently subjective and emotional subject, so maybe I shouldn’t see that as the be all and end all of my religious life.

***

Another thought was prompted by an Orthodox Conundrum podcast featuring Rabbi Pesach Sommer talking about whether it is possible to educate for faith (not indoctrinate). He spoke about Orthodox thinkers that teenagers should be introduced to (I had read most of them, pleasingly) and one was Hillel Zeitlin. Zeitlin is a fairly obscure figure who was raised in a strict Hasidic family in late nineteenth century Poland, stopped being frum as a teenager, getting into secular philosophy and Russian literature, then later became frum again, but combined his passion for philosophy and literature with Judaism, writing about religion in Dostoyevski and Tolstoy from a Jewish perspective alongside articles on Jewish figures like Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and Rav Kook and, if I remember correctly, trying to compare Judaism with Eastern religions. He was eventually murdered in the Holocaust.

I was familiar with Zeitlin from a volume of his writings that Jewish Renewal rabbi Arthur Green published a number of years ago and he did inspire me, albeit more by his example than by the writings themselves (as with Franz Rosenzweig). The relevance of this here is that Rabbi Sommer saw Zeitlin as a useful writer because he was not a rabbi and was therefore freer to write about his religious doubts and growth than ordained rabbis. He can therefore be a model of the religious quest, rather than a static view of Judaism and Jewish belief and practice.

The point of all this is that it made me wonder if there is benefit to my recording my thoughts about Judaism and my religious growth, including false starts and wrong turns, after all, precisely because I’m not a rabbi and I don’t need to pretend to be living a perfect religious life. I can be honest and authentic without needing to pretend I have all the answers. I can, in fact, try out different answers without having to be sure that they are “correct.”

***

I struggled to sleep again last night. I got four or five hours sleep and I got up alright this morning, but I made a lot of mistakes at work, perhaps due to tiredness, or to sensory overload from the noise of the air conditioner — or autistic executive function issues, or incompetence, or, or, or…

A small victory: doing mundane tasks while listening to podcasts at work, I listened to a therapist critique the shidduch system of arranged dates in the Orthodox world. She said single young people should enjoy the best years of their lives and not worry about being on the shelf in their early twenties. The “best years of their lives” bit would have depressed me in the past as my teens and twenties were mostly spent unemployed, clinically depressed and very lonely, not doing very much at all, and desperately needing the autism/Asperger’s diagnosis I wouldn’t get for years. I did wince a bit, but I just went on with what I was doing. Yes, I had a miserable time. Yes, lots of people had more fun. Probably the net amount of fun they have over their lifetimes will be greater than mine. But there isn’t much point in going over that all over again. I guess things can only get better? (And, yes, we’ve discussed here before whether teens and twenties really are the best years of your life.)

I got the marriage paperwork I was trying to get hold of yesterday, so we’ve got that to look forward to…

***

I submitted my novel to another agent. I wanted to submit to two, but this one wanted so much stuff that I had didn’t have to hand (elevator pitch, one page synopsis) that I ran out of time. It took well over an hour to submit. It’s frustrating that agents all want different things. One wants a one page synopsis, another wants a two page synopsis and it’s harder than you might think to turn one into the other. When what they want is straightforward, I can submit in twenty minutes or so, but this took nearly four times as long.

The agent that I submitted to was the one who found Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I can’t pretend that this didn’t leap out to me because I’m currently reading it, but I guess there are some similarities, although I didn’t list it as a published novel similar to my own (I thought that would be gauche; if there are similarities, she can spot them for herself). I broke my informal rule of not submitting to the CEO of an agency (unless it’s a very small one) because she genuinely seemed like the best fit at this agency. I just hope she has the time to deal with the books she represents.

To be honest, I feel my first novel is a mess, an attempt at writing autobiographical fiction that mutated into more imaginative fiction, but not enough. Some of the autobiographical bits are OK, but the strongest part is the non-autobiographical plot thread about a frum woman being abused by abused by her husband. If I wasn’t involved in other writing (and wasn’t afraid of charges of appropriation?), I’d be tempted to try to expand that to a whole novel on its own. Of the three people (other than me) who have read it, two liked it (and the third arguably was not the target audience), which I guess counts for something. I feel that my current novel is better, but also significantly flawed (I just realised a major flaw in it so far). I guess it’s a learning process.

As is often the case when I submit my manuscript, I was left feeling that I am a bad writer and reader for not reading modern fiction. In a weird way, this is probably due to autism/Asperger’s. Like many people on the spectrum, I like to stick with things I know I will like and can understand deeply rather than trying to understand something new. I read the same authors and sometimes I re-read the same books multiple times, although I’m trying to do that less. I’ve read all the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges (most of them multiple times), all the surviving fiction of Franz Kafka (ditto), all of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels, much of the prodigious outputs of Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, H. G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (all the Professor Challenger stories as well as the more famous Sherlock Holmes ones), Agatha Christie, John le Carre and various other writers. I haven’t read anything from contemporary writers who have only written one or two books. Reading broadly is more of a problem than reading deeply, and reading modern is more of a problem than reading classics.

“What’s so interesting about an ox?”

I really struggled to get up today, feeling utterly drained and self-critical (it goes without saying I got up really late, as it was a non-work/volunteering day — no volunteering this week for the summer holiday). The fact that another heatwave seems to have started probably didn’t help. Even if I can sleep when it’s hot, I tend not to sleep well (or, even less well than usual). Dad was watching the news when I went down for breakfast, so I got to see the latest on the Conservative Party leadership contest (“Tax cuts will fix everything in our broken society”) and Donald Trump being raided by the FBI, which is the least surprising “unexpected” story ever (I would not be surprised if he eventually goes out in a hail of bullets). None of this helped my mood much. I did manage to get dressed in about ten minutes to just about say some of Shacharit (Morning Prayers) while it was still time, which was good, and unexpected.

I waited over an hour at the dentist, as there was a child (I think) who needed emergency treatment. I was OK with that, although I had nothing to read, and the waiting room would probably have been too noisy for me to read anyway (radio, child playing videos on a phone without headphones). I think the dentist said I shouldn’t have gone to the dentist until I had two separate instances of pain, but possibly she was just saying that she wouldn’t extract the tooth for just one instance of pain. She said the gum was inflamed and cleaned it out, and suggested I rinse after meals with salt water to keep it clean, but that was about it.

Because of the long wait, I lost a lot of time. I tried to do some Torah study while cooking to save some time, but I struggled to find an appropriate shiur (class) to listen to. I ended up listening to a short ten minute thing and then some more Orthodox Judaism, which was interesting, but more pedagogy than actual Torah study. There was more discussion about teaching Talmud to schoolchildren, which made me think maybe I know some more things than I thought, not so much in terms of facts, but concepts, like knowing some of the history of the Talmud and the way it uses particular topics to discuss general concepts.

Rabbi Yakov Horowitz spoke about speaking to a meeting of three hundred (I think) Haredi single mothers who wanted to understand their sons’ schoolwork (Haredi women are generally not taught Talmud). One woman asked why her son is always talking about oxen. I was already aware that the Talmud uses four different types of dangerous items (foot, ox, pit and fire) as shorthand for various ways of causing damage, so I felt somewhat ahead of the game here. It was also good to hear a Haredi rabbi admit that one hundred years ago, only the top one per cent of Jewish schoolboys would have even gone to yeshivah and studied Talmud. Again, I knew that already, but it’s not really admitted to in the Haredi world. I recently saw someone arguing that while most Jewish men in pre-war Eastern Europe did have to work, they dreamt of spending all their time studying Tosfos (Tosfos, or Tosafot in the Modern Hebrew pronunciation I use, is a collective Medieval commentary on the Talmud, even more complicated and difficult than the Talmud itself). I can’t prove that this is untrue (I don’t have access to the dreams and fantasies of every Jewish man in pre-war Eastern Europe), but it seems unlikely given the social and economic situation of the time. Study was important to people even quite low down the social scale, but of much less challenging texts, and it seems unlikely that all Jewish men wanted to spend as long as possible in religious study.

I tried to phone the United Synagogue Marriage Authorisation Department to get the paperwork to move on the religious marriage. I got the answerphone, as I did when I phoned last week, which worried me a bit. I will try again…

The other thing I did was spend an hour or so working on my novel. I feel a bit bad about writing instead of studying Torah, but I tell myself writing is my livelihood, even though it actually isn’t, I’m just hoping it will contribute to it one day. I did make myself do a few minutes of Torah study on this week’s sedra (Torah reading), which happens to be my bar mitzvah portion (although I no longer remember how to lein it — I got so much praise for my bar mitzvah leining that I freaked out with social anxiety and refused to lein again, except when my parents forced me to lein haftorah for my sister’s bat mitzvah).

There are other things I would like to write about, but I am tired and between struggling to get up and get going this morning and the wait at the dentist, I am out of time.

“You’re so sheer you’re so chic/Teenage rebel of the week”

The most important news: E booked a civil wedding ceremony for us, on 29 August! It’s a big moment. Even though we won’t live together until we have the chuppah (Jewish wedding), it’s a moment of commitment in that we would be a couple in the eyes of US and UK law, as well as allowing us to start the process of getting E a spouse visa to live in the UK.

I do feel impatient for the chuppah (religious wedding). I just feel I’m ready to be married now and it’s frustrating that we’ll have to wait many more months (depending on Home Office bureaucracy).

***

I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by life this morning. I had some post-Tisha B’Av thoughts about wanting to do something useful in the world and not being sure what. I do still think helping people who find themselves on the fringes of the frum (religious Jewish) community would be a good place to start, if I can work out what to do. As Rabbi Tarfon said in the Mishnah, “The work is not yours to finish, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2.16)

It’s funny that this blog started as a mental health blog, then became a “moving towards autism/Asperger’s diagnosis” blog, then an “adjusting to autism/Asperger’s diagnosis” blog. Now it seems to be becoming an “I’m on the fringes of the frum community and don’t know what to do” blog. I guess that’s where my thoughts are nowadays.

***

Somewhat related, I read this article on religious abuse (possibly of interest to some of my readers, but it’s possibly triggering and contains a lot of untranslated Hebrew). It’s weird that I essentially have the mindset of a survivor of religious abuse without actually having suffered religious abuse. I tend to see God as distant and punitive, waiting to punish me. Actually, I only think He is like this towards me. I think He’s loving and forgiving towards everyone else.

I know this comes from various difficult childhood experiences with authority which I then project onto God. I don’t know if any of them are clinically describable as “trauma.” I’ve had therapists refer to them as “traumatic,” but that might have been in a colloquial sense rather than a clinical one. (If this was in therapy, my therapist would probably be asking me why it matters whether it was a clinical term or not and why I rely on authority figures (e.g. parents, rabbi mentor, therapists, God) for validation more than on my understanding of my own feelings, the feelings that I actually feel and that no one else has direct access to. I guess I feel that nowadays “trauma” is a politically-loaded term and only certain people get to use it.) Unfortunately, knowing what the experiences were that left me with this mindset does not equate to being able to change the mindset.

At the root of this is religious perfectionism. I feel I have to get my religious life 100% right or it’s not worth anything. Moreover, there are no exemptions or mitigating circumstances based on my neurodiversity, mental illness, possible physical illness, distance from the community and so on. As I’ve said before, frum Jews who do not have access to the community and its social support structure tend not to stay frum very long. I’ve had limited access (although not none at all) to this social support structure for years, alongside all those extra difficulties, and I’m still, on some level, here. But I struggle to give myself credit for that.

I believe God judges everyone on their own level, based on their background, education, experiences, strengths, weaknesses and so on. Yet it is hard to see what level I’m on. I can find the major decision points of my life, but I find it impossible to judge whether I could have chosen differently or what the consequences would have been if I had chosen differently. It also seems a lot easier to judge how things might have been for a neurotypical, mentally healthy person who took that decision (there are plenty of examples to draw from), but it’s harder to work out how I would have fared in those circumstances.

I guess I want to believe in a loving God, but it seems somehow too good to be true. Or a way of aggrandising myself and excusing my deficiencies and failures. I feel uncomfortable with people who cut God to fit their own conceptions of divinity, religion or ethics.

***

I was listening to Rabbi Yakov Horowitz talk on the Orthodox Conundrum, and he said the skills that helped him as an adult, as an educator, Rosh Yeshivah, and child safeguarding advocate, i.e. boundless energy and a lot of chutzpah, did not stand him in good stead at school when he was required to sit and obey instructions. He likes to reassure parents and students that “eighth grade” (which I think is more year nine (thirteen to fourteen) in the UK — I get confused when Americans assume everyone in the world has the same grade system) does not last forever. I feel like I’m the reverse, that I was really good at school when my life consisted of memorising and regurgitating large amounts of information, but it turns out that real life is not like that and I don’t have a useful skillset for it. My parents want me to go on the quiz show The Chase, and I probably do have more skills for doing well in general knowledge quizzes than for holding down an actual useful job.

***

I submitted my first novel to two more agents. It’s slow work, first weeding out the agencies that are totally wrong, then finding the best agent to submit to out of a list of agents in an agency. They have some blurb about what books they like, but there’s an element of pot luck. One agent said she wanted characters that she would want to hang out with. Great, so it’s not enough that I don’t know how to get people to want to hang out with me, but now I need to get them to want to hang out with my characters too! Not that this is adolescent or anything…

More seriously, I’m working from a list of American agents, and I wonder if I should try to find a list of UK agents, on the grounds that some agents may not want someone from abroad. I did search online and found a couple of lists quite quickly, but I’d have to do some research to check they’re reliable and up-to-date. I think they are mostly big agencies too, and I have a gut feeling (that may be completely wrong) that I should be looking for a smaller agency. I’m in the middle of the ‘J’s in the American alphabetical list and my tendency to want to finish things makes me want to stick with it to ‘Z,’ but, realistically, it’s probably worth trying some British agencies first.

To be honest, I think the novel I’m working will be better than the first novel, if I can finish it, which makes it hard to try to ‘sell’ the first one when I’m more excited about the second. Although I feel I have a weird, stodgy, overly formal, almost nineteenth century, style of writing. I feel that this should be an autism thing, but I’m not sure that it actually is. I’ve also read a lot of nineteenth century novels and not nearly enough contemporary ones. I feel it applies to my blog posts too, you may or may not agree.

***

I think I should cut down my reading/listening to stuff about abuse. It was becoming somewhat obsessive lately, and I think it was triggering some OCD-type thoughts. I think I’ve mentioned that I’ve noticed an increase in obsessive-type thoughts lately, not really frequent or intense enough to count as OCD, but still worrying. I suspect wedding anxiety is part of the problem, perhaps also Mum’s illness earlier in the year. I know the abuse research was partly for my novel, but I think I can put it aside for now.

I Come from Barcelona

Work is very slow at the moment, which possibly gives me too much time to think, or to overthink things. I thought more about trying to find my religious place and about trying to find some kind of purpose in life beyond doing boring work, badly, for inadequate pay (my pay is very generous compared to what I do, but inadequate to live on unsupplemented).

I woke up feeling a failure, I’m not sure why. The exception, the non-failure, is my relationship with E, which is a big exception, but still, I feel that I’m not achieving enough (what is “enough”? Enough to help support a family or enough to stroke my ego?). I sometimes feel like I interpret any error on my part or anyone with difference of opinion to me as a sign of failure on my part, that I should have spotted the error or predicted the difference of opinion and accounted for it in advance.

On the way to work, I listened to an Orthodox Conundrum discussing whether Modern Orthodox schools [1] teach too much Talmud. This was interesting, but also (for want of a better word) triggering. The argument in favour of as much, or more, Talmud included the need for immersion in the language (Aramaic and rabbinical Hebrew) and thought-system of the Talmud and Medieval commentators to really make progress in understanding, which I probably agree with, in a way, but I was left with the feeling that, having not gone to yeshivah and not studied/studying Talmud in depth or at length, my Torah study is at best “dilettante” (as the “pro-more-Talmud opinion said) or even that I am a “second class Jew.” I’m not sure what the context for this remark was, and I’m pretty sure it was being said along the lines of, “We mustn’t let people who don’t study/understand Talmud feel like second-class Jews…” but I still felt uncomfortable. On the other hand, Rabbi Kahn did argue that some students are simply not going to understand or enjoy Talmud study, particularly at age fourteen, and that they should study other Jewish topics (like Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) or philosophy) and more creative ways of studying and engaging with Jewish tradition. I agree with this, and it is part of why I didn’t go to yeshivah, but it did prime me to spend the day introspecting about where I fit in the Jewish world (again).

If Torah study is the most important mitzvah (at least for men), and Talmud study is the most important form of Torah study (again, for men), then where does that leave me? Again, reading When Rabbis Abuse, it sometimes seems like being learned is more important than being good in the frum (religious Jewish) community. Certainly being able to study Talmud and lead prayer services seems to lead to status in the frum world in a way that just being a good person does not, or not necessarily. I am still haunted by the image of serial child abuser Todros Grynhaus leading Yamim Noraim (High Holy Day) services even after serious allegations of abuse had been made against him. This was in a Federation shul (synagogue), so moderate Haredi rather than extreme Haredi.

Less melodramatically, I worry that the people I admire would find little to admire in me (except E). I do have a need for approval.

I began to wonder if I need a clearer purpose in life than other people. I need to do more than work to earn money to buy food and pay rent/mortgage so I can live to work to earn money to buy food… I feel this should be important to everyone, but apparently it is not. For many people, work, family and conventional religious behaviour seems to be enough for them[2] and I wonder why it doesn’t seem to be the case for me. Is it just because my family is still hypothetical and my religious behaviour is fraught with difficulty because of autism, social anxiety and disrupted sleep? Or is it because I feel myself to have a weak sense of self and my own opinions, bouncing off other people’s ideas, so I look for a clear mission or guiding principle in life to manifest my life around? I feel that, even without all my “issues,” I would want more from my religious life than going to shul three times a day and studying Talmud (or even something else) for an hour or so a day. I need something more, but I don’t know what.

To some extent, I probably want something conventional Orthodox Judaism just isn’t offering. I went to the little shul (really a Beit Midrash) upstairs to daven Minchah (say Afternoon Prayers) after work this afternoon. There wasn’t a service, I just wanted to pray in a shul and I knew I wouldn’t go this evening. Before I davened, I just sat in the quiet and calm of the empty room and it was very peaceful and comfortable, but that’s not really a Jewish way to respond to sacred spaces. There are kabbalists and Hasidim who meditate (I’ve done it in the past), hitbodedut, mantra meditation, other types of meditation, but it’s not considered mainstream. It’s not something most frum people would associate with Judaism.

Then again, maybe once I get married, I really won’t need anything else, particularly if we have children. Maybe being with someone I love and who loves me, in a genuinely reciprocal relationship (unlike previous relationships, which were always one-sided, despite my efforts) will be enough for me, and I won’t care any more about where I fit in the religious world beyond where we happen to be, or about getting published or being taken seriously or anything else (OK, I would probably still worry about money and boredom if I was in the same job). I hope so, because sometimes hoping for more than that seems foolish.

[1] I’m not sure how the American school system works and what grades correspond to what ages, but I think this was mostly about secondary schools.

[2] Admittedly not the scores of people who are all over the internet describing themselves as “activists,” but, then again, I’m not sure what these people do other than repost stuff on social media.

***

I tried to submit my first novel to another agent. The first agency I looked at didn’t want religious fiction. I’m not sure that my novel is “religious fiction,” exactly, but it’s probably near enough to make it not worth my time submitting. The second agency said something along the lines of, “Fiction doesn’t need to be Christian, but it should not conflict with a Christian worldview.” Talk about betwixt and between. The next agent is apparently autistic, and wants the usual standard marginalised voices, but doesn’t want “inspirational works including religious overtones.” What does that mean? (Please don’t tell me that religious people can’t be marginalised, or aren’t marginalised if they’re Jewish or Christian rather than Muslim or Hindu.) They only wanted the first five pages, which I don’t think is really enough to sell the story (what next, the first five words?), but I was just desperate to submit to someone so I hadn’t wasted the evening. In the end I sent to a different agent at the same agency. The agency wanted me to follow them on Twitter, which did lead me wonder just how desperate they think I am. I am desperate to get published, but not that desperate. I wanted to submit to another agency, but it was hard finding one that was suitable and I ran out of time.

Anyway, I have applied to twenty-five agencies in a year, which is NOT good going. Admittedly, there have been times when I stopped submitting for months on end, for various reasons (applying for jobs, waiting for the emerging writers’ programme to get back to me, E here or me going to the US, Pesach preparation…), but it’s still disappointing. I’m up to ‘J’ in the alphabetical agency list I’m using. Also, some of these agents sound really annoying, super-privileged middle class people super-proud of themselves for being on the side of a carefully-curated and approved set of Little People.

***

E read, and told me about, the recently-published novel Shmutz, about a Haredi woman who is addicted to pornography. I was worried about it stealing the thunder from the novel I’m working on about a pornography-addicted Haredi rabbi. She doesn’t know where my novel is going, but she has seen the first draft of the first couple of chapters. She says it didn’t seem like there was a huge overlap. Shmutz has apparently some very graphic descriptions of violent pornography, which there definitely won’t be in my novel.

After we spoke, I took the plunge and skimmed the first few pages on Amazon look inside, although I don’t want to read the whole thing until I’ve finished my first draft. It left me somewhat despondent. Shmutz gets off to a much quicker start than my novel, opening with the main character telling her doctor she doesn’t want to marry as that would involve giving up pornography on the first page. My first chapter tries to build up slowly to the reveal of the apparently too-good-to-be-true protagonist’s secret, but I worry it will bore people, and agents only seem to want to look at the first ten or even five pages, not the first twenty-five. Shmutz seems much more open about its subject matter than I’m able to be, much more fitting with the contemporary idiom. I struggle with things like slang and think my prose is probably ponderous (in general, including here, not just in the novel). In terms of explicitness, I want to balance between writing something vaguely suitable for religious Jews, pornography addicts and partners of pornography addicts to read without being triggered, while still trying not to be as coy as most Orthodox writing about sex.

I suspect Shmutz doesn’t have my pretentions to Serious Literature either; I want my novel to be deeply about things like the Jewish idea of repentance and redemption as much as about sex. I probably want to be taken seriously too much (again, in life as well as in writing). E thinks I’m wasting my talents writing serious fiction when she thinks I’m better at writing science fiction satire (based on a squib I showed her a while back), but I have to really be in the right mindset to write that, and I worry I can’t put myself in that zone, I just occasionally get pushed into it by things around me. Plus writing satire would involve being more aware of current events and the idiocies of the age (Big Tech, Trump, woke, etc.) than I want to be right now.

***

I’ve been re-watching some Fawlty Towers lately. Sometimes, at work or volunteering or occasionally in other places, someone says something to me and I just have no idea what they’re saying, whether through executive dysfunction, sensory overload, difficulty processing spoken instructions or something else. Whoever I’m talking to has to say the same thing multiple times and I stare blankly until it eventually sinks in on the fifth attempt. The reasons are different, but I think from the outside it looks exactly like Basil Fawlty trying to communicate with Manuel, only without the casual sadism. “Please try to understand before one of us dies!”

The Elevator Pitch

The important bit: E booked an appointment for us to get a wedding licence when I’m in New York.  We can’t book the civil wedding itself until next week, as they only release the slots three weeks in advance.  But we’re another step closer to marriage!

***

I couldn’t sleep last night.  I don’t know why.  I often find it hard to sleep after a headache and it was hot again too.  I got about two hours sleep in the end and somehow got up in time for work.  I drank a lot of coffee…  I’m not sure if that’s the reason I made some mistakes at work.  To be honest, I don’t really need sleep deprivation as an excuse.  Some of it is executive function issues.  Some of it might be incompetence.  Or maybe not.  I don’t really know any more.

I had to do a rotten job at work too which I won’t go into here, but it involved the phone, asking people for money they owed and some other stressful stuff, but it left me feeling lousy and still not getting the money we were owed.

When I got home I did some small chores, thinking I would submit my novel to an agent after dinner, but by the time dinner came (my parents eat late), I was burnt out and light-headed from lack of food and still felt bad after eating.

I feel like eating junk (rogelach or cake), but really shouldn’t as I had too much over the last couple of days.  I might use the autistic exhaustion heter (dispensation) to listen to music despite the Three Weeks of mourning, as I feel pretty bad, but don’t think I should go to bed just yet.

***

I was thinking again last night, when I couldn’t sleep, about people I know/knew who get paid to write, or who write for a wide audience (paid or free).  I felt despairing that I would ever get there, although the number of people I could think of being paid to write wasn’t that great, and I think they’re mainly making money from their substack email newsletters.  Feeling a failure at work and even wondering today if I would get fired didn’t help.  J is pretty easygoing, but I imagine he doesn’t have infinite patience.  There is definitely a trend on the autism forum for people to fail to hold jobs down for long, although they tend to blame the social aspects of work rather than executive function issues.

Instead of feeling like an inadequate, failed writer, I tried to focus on my life and what I have, especially E.  I remember when I was single and lonely for so many years and now have someone who loves me more than I ever thought possible.  But I would like to be able to contribute more to the family.  I am sufficiently ‘modern’ to be OK being the lower earning partner and being a house husband, but I would like our life not to involve money being very tight, or relying on our parents.

***

I went to the free book box on the way home, partly because it was such a stressful day, and I ended up over-compensating.  I took three books: Doctor Who: The Time Lord Victorious: The Knight, The Fool and the Dead by Steve Cole; The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale; and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

I don’t really read Doctor Who books any more, but I couldn’t not take a free one.  Eleanor Oliphant is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read, but never got around to, and is probably the sort of literary/commercial novel that I should be reading to understand the field.  That probably applies to The Suspicions of Mr Whicher too, although it’s more of a stretch in terms of genre (historical fiction, murder mystery, fiction-based-on-fact).

***

I’m still on the front page of the Jewish website with my autism/Asperger’s story.  I noticed today that they put a note on it about winning the award, which I guess is why it’s still up there.  It did occur to me to wonder if I should email Rabbi Kahn from the Orthodox Conundrum podcast to suggest he does a neurodiversity episode or a high-functioning autism/Asperger’s episode.  But I’m a bit scared in case he asks me to be on it.  Then again, it’s not likely that he would ask some random stranger onto his podcast.  Usually the people he interviews are experts or activists of some kind, often rabbis.  Anyway, I wrote a sort of fan letter, saying I like the podcast and asking him to do an episode on Asperger’s/high functioning autism, but I think it came across as “LET ME BE ON YOUR PODCAST!!!!”

I suppose I would like to be able to talk in a more honest way than I was in the article I wrote.  Not that I was dishonest, but I had to omit and compress a lot to get it down to a thousand words, and I did the thing I complained about yesterday of making my life seem linear and positive when it isn’t always those things.  Podcasts – conversation – are not going to be great for any autistic people, though.  We tend to freeze when forced to answer quickly, and are not always good at social niceties (my old friend executive function issues again).  Anyway, it probably won’t happen.

***

It is very hot again and I don’t like it.

The Sense of an Ending

I had insomnia again last night, then overslept today and was a bit drained all day. I’m not sure if that’s the result of heat or exhaustion, as it has been quite hot again (although not as hot as during the heatwave), but I also spent Shabbat (the Sabbath) mostly focusing on religious things (prayer, shul (synagogue), Torah study) and not relaxing. I did manage to do a few things today despite this.

E and I filled out the online application form for a wedding licence. We hope to book an appointment to get that licence tomorrow, when the licenses for the week we want are released. It’s a slow, bureaucratic process, filling in a form to get an appointment to get a licence, but at least if feels like we’re moving forward.

I’m also making slow, but steady progress with my novel. I don’t have much to say about that. I went for my first run in a couple of weeks too. Again, not great pace, and I did get a headache, but it was good to be exercising. I did experience some dizziness intermittently in the evening afterwards and I’m not sure what caused that. The headache did stop me doing much in the evening. I really just watched episodes of The Simpsons and listened to a religious podcast as I didn’t feel up to reading to study Torah (some episodes of the Orthodox Conundrum, like the one I listened to today, are strongly religious or even halakhic (based on Jewish law), whereas others are more cultural or political (in broad terms) with little directly religious content).

***

I have a couple of wisdom teeth that have been partially erupted for some years now. Dentists have never bothered to remove them, as they weren’t causing any pain. The gum over one of them has suddenly started become raw and sensitive over the last few days, and I can see the gum where the tooth is coming through is white, indicating the tooth is pressing on it from beneath. I really hope I don’t have to have the teeth removed right before I go to the US. For the moment it’s irritating, but not too painful, but I’ll have to see if it gets better or worse.

***

JYP commented on my previous post to say that there is a tendency in frum (religious Jewish) personal stories to “wrap [the story] up neatly and relatively quickly”. I think that’s true, but I’m not sure it’s unique to frum journalism.

Today I was reading an article on a Jewish website about a frum influencer’s struggle with alcoholism. It again had the narrative of descending to a low point, then steadily improving. This is unlikely to be the whole story, as addicts usually relapse at least once before achieving sobriety.

I think narratives are partly determined by the technical requirements of genre and medium, which is a fancy way of saying that in a personal story of one to two thousand words (which seems to be the average for personal stories like this on Jewish websites), you don’t get a lot of time to detail long and perhaps somewhat cyclical processes of change and relapse. There is also an expectation of closure at the end of a story in the Western tradition. In People Love Dead Jews, Dara Horn identifies this as primarily a Christian or post-Christian trope, saying that Yiddish and Hebrew prose fiction from the last couple of centuries often just ends abruptly with nothing resolved[1], but these religious sites are largely aimed at Westernised, secular readers.

In a wider sense, it’s common (cliched, even) nowadays for people to refer to life as a “story” or a “journey” [2], suggesting (at least in the Western tradition, according to Horn) a process with a clear beginning and ending with a linear path between them. Reality is more meandering and unfocused. Perhaps we need more stories, fiction and non-fiction, that meander and end inconclusively. For what it’s worth, my current novel is structured around the protagonist’s repeated falls from attempted sobriety and I am toying with the idea of an open, inconclusive ending. How to maintain interest despite the repetition is going to be hard, as will making the novel seem finished and not abandoned at the end.

[1] I’m not an expert on Hebrew and Yiddish literature, but from what I have read, Mendele Mocher-Seforim’s The Travels of Benjamin the Third ends very abruptly (it feels like the author lost interest) and a couple of Shalom Aleichem’s stories about Jewish rail passengers telling tales to each other stop suddenly when the storyteller’s station appears and he gets off. As for the kind of non-Jewish literature that Yiddish readers might have encountered, I’m not an expert on Russian literature either, but Crime and Punishment has quite a rushed ending (the ‘crime’ takes up most of the novel, the ‘punishment’ only a few pages) and The Brothers Karamazov ends very abruptly and with a lot left hanging, to the extent that, after 1,300 pages, I wasn’t sure it was actually the end. War and Peace meanders a lot through very different situations with no clear plot thread, but I can’t remember how it finishes, beyond the huge non-fiction appendix with Tolstoy’s weird ideas about history.

[2] When I was working in further education, whenever the institution would refer to the students’ “learning journeys,” my boss would comment derisively, “They’re not on a ‘learning journey!’ They’ve gone to college!”

Planning Ahead

Today was a pretty good day.  I weighed myself when I got up and I was 71kg, which is quite comfortably in the healthy weight range for my height, albeit at the higher end.  I do still feel that I would like less of a visible tummy when I get married, so I’m not about to go and splurge on cake and ice cream.

I did some more novel-writing, had therapy, and went for a walk.  I also got to shul (synagogue) for Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Prayers).  I hadn’t gone to weekday prayers for a while, so I was pleased to go.  I would like to get back in the habit of going more often, although I’m not sure what sort of target to set at the moment.

Going to shul felt like a positive thing.  I have a lot of anxiety about going to shul, but often when I’m there I feel good.  It’s getting in the front door that’s hard, or talking to people afterwards, but the service itself helps me feel connected, perhaps to God, but certainly to the community.  It helps that it’s very scripted and much of Jewish prayer services is private prayer anyway rather than things read together.

***

My article about being high-functioning autistic in the Jewish community on a Jewish website seems to be trending again.  At any rate, it’s gone back to the the front page and then crawled up near the top, something usually reserved for new articles.  My sister suggested the site is promoting it again because I won an award for it, although I would expect some kind of banner on it if that was the reason.  Anyway, it raises my profile, which is good.

***

I realised this morning that I’m currently planning the time ahead of me in months if not years, rather than days and weeks.  This feels weird.  For most of the time from 2003 onwards, long-term goals went out the window as I focused on just getting through one day at a time because of my depression.  When I was able to work, I was mostly focused on getting through each day, not on career progression, and it was difficult enough to do that.  I think even when I dated, I wasn’t looking that far ahead, until recently.

It feels strange to be thinking in terms of months until my wedding, or years until we have children (hopefully).  Sometimes waiting until next spring to get married seems very far away and sometimes the fact that I’m actually planning it, rather than just hoping it will happen one day, makes it seem very close.

***

I was speaking about my place in the Orthodox Jewish community to my therapist in the context of not finding a suitable wife inside the community and marrying someone less religious than me.  She said I had an avant-garde, maverick status in the community.  I found that weirdly appealing.  It is true that I’m less willing to conform to certain non-halakhic (Jewish law) cultural standards and “unwritten rules” (which autistic people are famously bad at understanding).  I don’t always like not fitting in, but I wouldn’t want to be a conformist either.  I am trying to see my relationship with E as God calling me to learn to give and to live religiously in ways that I haven’t done before.

We also spoke a bit about mourning for the neurotypical life I will never have.  I feel I have a way to go with this still.  I thought I had processed and accepted my autistic/Asperger’s diagnosis, but I’m not sure that I have.  My therapist got me thinking about the Kubler-Ross model of grief.  I looked it up after therapy and I think I’m still in anger, at least some of the time, which is only the second stage out of five, although arguably I spent years in the past in depression (step four).  I think it is accepted nowadays that people don’t always go through the model sequentially, but can go back and forth between steps, so I don’t want to read too much into it.

“Why were you not Luftmentsch?”

I was somewhat late for volunteering today, partly because I overslept, partly because there were no buses.  To be fair, the two other people who get the same bus were similarly late.  I hung around to drink coffee with the other volunteers afterwards.  I tried to speak.  I find it hard.  There are some things I don’t really want to talk about, and other things where I can’t work out whether I should talk about them or not.  There are some questions that I would naturally answer with a yes/no answer, but I have learnt that allistics (non-autistics) often prefer an explanation or elaboration, so I try to give that where it doesn’t seem too intrusive.  Believe it or not, I’m a private person away from my blog.

I did mention that I’m engaged and having my civil wedding soon.  I’d been wondering whether to say something, then I had the opportunity to drop it into the conversation casually, so I did.  Everyone was pleased for me, although I had to explain the immigration/two weddings situation.

More difficult to handle was when I was asked if I would join everyone at a non-kosher restaurant for lunch next week (there is no actual volunteering next week).  I was not comfortable doing that, although I was pleased to be asked.  But I find these situations awkward, as I don’t want to appear holier-than-thou.  To be honest, part of me was glad, as if it was at a kosher restaurant, I would feel obliged to go and I’m not sure I’m ready for that level of social contact with these people yet.  But I know E would be inclined to go in this situation and it does make me wonder how we will deal with our different kashrut-based socialising decisions.  It can be a bit of a minefield at the best of times.

I volunteer putting together the food packages at the food bank, and then other volunteers come to distribute them in their cars.  One of those drivers was wearing a kippah like the one I was wearing.  These were produced uniquely for my sister and brother-in-law’s wedding guests, so it would seem he was there (I guess as a guest on my brother-in-law’s side as I didn’t know him, most likely a relative or close friend of my BIL’s parents).  I didn’t have the confidence to ask him about it.  My Dad has actually had at least one conversation with a stranger started by the shared wedding kippah connection and I felt that my Dad would want me to ask him, but I didn’t have the confidence.

In the afternoon I spent some time on my novel.  I spent about an hour on it, not as much as I would have liked, but I wrote over 500 words, and it was a difficult passage (not yet finished), about my characters’ reactions in an art gallery.  Art is not a subject I know a lot about, so it is a learning curve.  I think this chapter will take some time

I submitted my first novel to another agent.  I had to pick one from a bunch of agents at the agency.  They did have them tagged by genre, which made it easier, although I’m not sure what I feel about ‘mental illness’ and ‘neurodivergent’ apparently being considered genres now, useful though that is to me, given my novel’s subject matter.  I feel vaguely bad that I discounted one agent for having two typos on her profile page, although it then turned out that she’s not currently looking for new writers anyway (phew, no guilt!).  I did find another one to submit to.

***

I saw a blog post yesterday about not having a victim mentality.  Then today I was in a discussion about the same subject.  I probably do have something of a victim mentality when I look back at my earlier life, in particular the bullying and the years lost to depression/autistic burnout.  I’m finding it hard to learn to accept my life without letting the negative parts of it define me, and not to see it as leaving me with something to prove or a need to redeem my life.  It’s possible that I still haven’t processed the fact that I’ve discovered that I’m disabled and have been all my life, or at least that I haven’t processed it as much as I thought I had.

Today I was thinking (for unrelated reasons) about wanting to be myself, about the famous story about the eighteenth century Hasidic master Zusia of Hanipol.  On his deathbed, he said he was scared.  His Hasidim asked why.  He said, “I’m not scared that they will say [in the afterlife], ‘Why were you not Avraham (Abraham)?’ because I am not Avraham.  I’m not scared they will say, ‘Why were you not Moshe (Moses)?’ because I am not Moshe.  I’m scared they will say, ‘Zusia, why were you not Zusia?’”

It is scary to think of going through life trying to be someone else and I have no idea if I’m doing that.  I was thinking yesterday that I wished I was more spontaneous and confident enough to say and do things in an off-the-cuff way.  Then I asked myself if I really wished I could do that or if I just had an image in my head that being spontaneous is a good thing to be and that I’m not spontaneous and don’t need to be.

Emotional Vampire

Sorry, WordPress has eaten this post again, and I don’t have time to fix the probable formatting problems of salvaging it. Yesterday I overslept, the beginning of a day marked with incipient signs of autistic exhaustion. I skipped even more of Shacharit (Morning Prayers) than I usually do and wondered when I would get to see someone about my sleep issues. Work was pretty dull. In the morning I was mostly locating and copying dividend statements for the auditors without really understanding the financial reports I was searching through. I hope I found everything I needed. The afternoon was spent sorting through old papers to see what could be thrown away. I found letters from the then Chief Rabbi and his successor, and two letters from fathers of schoolfriends of mine (both Reform rabbis). On way home I felt burnt out. I had the “brain being squashed” feeling again. Apparently volunteering + headache + work + peopling + work again + heatwave = autistic exhaustion very quickly. I was exhausted at home. I spent half an hour or so doing non-screen time reading, which helped a bit even if the subject matter was heavy (The Third Reich in Power). After dinner, I submitted my novel to two agents in the space of twenty or thirty minutes. I’m getting quicker as I’m getting more experienced, although that hasn’t led to more interest, just more rejections. I spoke to E afterwards, but eventually I crashed. I can’t remember when I went to bed exactly, but I must have slept for over twelve hours, despite setting alarms and Dad trying to get me up. I feel tired and numb now, but more functional, and my brain doesn’t feel like it’s being squeezed. It is hard to do anything, though. I went for a walk, even though that meant I couldn’t work on my novel today (and I probably won’t on Sunday either, as I’m busy). I wanted to be out in nature, which is impossible where I live, but there’s a little strip of wasteland and woodland at the edge of the local park, so I went walking there. I listened to an Intimate Judaism podcast about sex and guilt, which did make me feel like I was, on some level, thinking about my novel, doing Torah study and getting out to look after my physical and emotional health, at least on some level. Aside from writing this post, the only other thing I’ve done today is my usual pre-Shabbat chores. I feel a need to move on with my life, particularly with marrying E and with my writing. Marrying E is moving on OK at the moment, even if it’s frustrating that bureaucracy is going to make it a prolonged process, but I want to move faster with my novel. It’s partly feeling I have something to say, and that my subject matter is going to be taken by other writers if I don’t write quickly. But some of it is feeling “I need to earn money as a writer to help support the family when E and I marry.” Days like today, when I just feel overwhelmed and unable to do much, are a reminder that I have a disability and that my life is not where I want it to be, will not be there for a while longer, and it may never be there, which is frustrating and scary. That said, I have kind of reached a point lately where, at least some of the time, I feel less resentful of having lost half my life to depression/autistic burnout/whatever it was. I don’t look positively at those times, but I feel I needed to go through something like that if I want to write about people on the margins of the frum (religious Jewish) world, and I feel I wasn’t ready to get married then, despite being painfully lonely and not having any real legitimate option in the frum world for dealing with loneliness and sexual frustration. I have a lot more maturity, understanding of myself, and ability to give in a relationship than I had even a couple of years ago. I feel less resentful of God for putting me through all this. Of course, if I believe in an omnipotent God, then I have to believe He could have achieved all this a less painful way, and I do struggle to consciously accept that this was the best way to achieve these goals, especially when so many other people reach this stage without similar levels of pain. Ultimately, I think everyone suffers, sooner or later (except perhaps some exceptionally wicked people who God lets enjoy this world so they won’t experience the next one), and it’s pointless to complain who suffers more or less. It’s hard sometimes, but the alternative is basically self-defeating. *** I had another couple of books arrive over the last two days. They were ostensibly bought for research for my novel, but I’m not sure how helpful they will actually be. Really, I was curious about them, but needed to justify reading them to myself. The books are The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know by Shira Tarrant and When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse by Elana Sztokman. For some time now I’ve been reading On Repentance, a collection of shiurim (religious lectures) given by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (New Year and Day of Atonement), and reconstructed from notes by Rabbi Pinchas Peli. I’ve been struggling in places, not because of the text, but because it’s hard to know what to do with the optimistic view of a forgiving God when I’m aware that there are people, often very prominent people, in the frum community who are abusive and others who defend and protect them, and I don’t feel these people should be forgiven. I worry how the community as a whole will achieve forgiveness for allowing this situation to exist. I think about this sometimes when davening (praying), but it really crystallised around the idea of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, after listening to Haredi activist Yehudis Fletcher describe her abuse by Todros Grynhaus, a rabbi and schoolteacher, and how, at a time when she was trying to make the community aware of the danger he posed, she was marginalised while he was asked to lead the prayer services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in a shul (synagogue) despite the allegations she had made against him. I do worry why I’ve got so interested in abuse, and writing about abuse. I was never abused (I was bullied a lot at school, but it was largely name-calling and not anything physical. I don’t know if it would be considered emotional abuse). I have known survivors, and abusers, but I think it’s more the experience of marginalisation that I empathise with, albeit for different reasons (autism and mental illness) and want to do something about. But I worry that I become a kind of emotional vampire, sucking up other people’s sorrow for benefit.

Headaches

I feel somewhat ill. I was going to write a post today about stuff that upsets, worries and disturbs me in the Orthodox Jewish world, whether I can change things and so on, but I felt too ill. I went to volunteering this morning and tried to drink a lot of water, but I still got a headache. I took some solpadeine and ate some biscuits and Bissli (savory, salty snacks) during the coffee break, despite my diet, or semi-diet, as I was worried about running out of energy (biscuits) or salt (Bissli). The headache seemed to go, but came back, worse, during the fifteen minute walk from the bus stop home. I ate lunch, used a cooling strip on my forehead and, when the four hours were up, took more solpadeine, but I just couldn’t shift this headache. It’s not a paralysing headache, but it’s stopped me from doing much, especially as I still feel a little sick with it. Because of this, I mostly watched DVDs this afternoon. I watched Thanks for Sharing, a comedy/drama film about sex addicts (not as salacious as it sounds). I was watching more for research for my novel, in particular to see how Sexaholics Anonymous sessions work (from the little bits we see, they work much like every other form of therapy group I’ve been in, only people talk about having sex, or trying to not have sex). It was a reasonable film, but the dialogue was recorded at quite a low level (perhaps to seem more realistic?). I didn’t want to turn the volume up on a film about sex addicts with my Dad in the house and the windows open, and I couldn’t find any subtitles, so I think I missed some dialogue; probably not anything important for my research, but I might have enjoyed it more. I kept pausing it anyway because of my headache and because I can get overwhelmed in the emotional bits. Like a lot of autistics, I can pick up emotions I see, even on TV, and take them on for myself if I’m not careful. Because of the headache, I haven’t done much else, although I guess volunteering in this heat was a positive, I did twenty minutes or so of Torah study on the way there and another twenty minutes in two shifts this evening. Watching Thanks for Sharing technically counts as working on my novel. However, I didn’t do any real writing or get travel insurance for my New York trip as I had planned/hoped. The headache began to go in the evening, although it is still lingering a bit. I had dinner with Mum and Dad in the garden, even though it was starting to rain, as it was cooler than the house. We came in shortly before it began to really rain, which I hope will bring the temperature down for the next few days. Tomorrow is my birthday. I’m working in the office, which at least has air conditioning. J is working from home, so I hope I don’t get lonely or depressed being there alone. My sister and brother-in-law are coming over in the evening for takeaway pizza, but I have to admit that my birthday isn’t really uppermost on my mind, whether because I’m too old or because I’m more focused on my wedding. *** Shmutz, a forthcoming novel that looks like it ploughs a similar furrow to my current work-in-progress has a big interview feature on The Times of Israel right now. I hope this works to my favour somewhere down the line, and not against me. I also hope, if my book gets published, people will actually read it before assuming it’s an anti-religious screed written by someone with a chip on their shoulder about the frum world, my comments in the first paragraph of this post notwithstanding — I get upset about the frum world because I care. There is stuff that’s happening in Afghanistan or China (for example) that’s far worse than anything in the frum world, but it doesn’t affect me so viscerally because it’s not my world, the one I feel connected to and responsible for and the one I realistically have the biggest (if still small) chance of changing. (Hoping this posts properly because I had to copy to Word and back again because of autosave issues again…  EDIT: it didn’t, but I’ve spent too much time and energy on this to sort it out, sorry.)

Pitch Imperfect

I stayed up late last night blogging, which was probably a mistake, although I thought I wouldn’t fall asleep easily as I slept so much during the day, finally getting to bed about 2.00am, just before the fast of Tammuz (see below) started. This was probably a mistake, as at 5.30am I woke up with a headache and even after it went, I couldn’t get back to sleep. I did eventually fall asleep midmorning and sleep for another three hours or so.

This week is set to be a disrupted week. Today is 17 Tammuz, a Jewish fast day and the start of the Three Weeks of mourning (no haircuts, shaving, music, weddings, parties, etc.). Fast days always feel strange and disrupted to me, even though I haven’t been able to fast on the minor fasts for fifteen years or more because being on lithium makes the risk of serious dehydration too great. This year, my family aren’t fasting either; both the United Synagogue and the Federation of Synagogues put out warnings that people in various categories of vulnerability should not fast because of the heatwave and dehydration risk. So it feels a strange day.

J said I could work at home tomorrow because of the heatwave that we currently have in the UK, but there isn’t really any work I can meaningfully do at home right now and I didn’t want to do pointless make-work, so I suggested going in on Wednesday instead, when it should be cooler, as I don’t have therapy this week. I’m probably going to see a friend sit shiva (mourn) for his mother tomorrow. And it’s my birthday on Wednesday and my sister and brother-in-law are coming round. I’ve moved some other parts of my routine around to accommodate these changes. I hope I cope OK with everything, as disruption to my routine can be difficult. And the heat makes everything extra-hard.

***

I thought I had an idea for an article that I could sell to a Jewish website. I spent an hour procrastinating and not starting it, which was a bad sign (admittedly I did about fifteen minutes of novel research in the procrastination). I spent half an hour or so writing it, but only managed 400 words and don’t think it’s going anywhere. I could try to expand and improve it, but it’s a news-related story (Jewish websites like to be topical for some reason) so it has a limited shelf-life and I’d need to finish it soon.

Admittedly it is very hot today and hard to work, and there was also a lot of noise from children playing outdoors and people playing music with the windows open. Still, I don’t feel confident in the idea any more. Possibly I am too much of a perfectionist to be able to write for websites, magazines and newspapers, which seem to need a lot of copy to be produced very quickly to generate enough income to live off. I was discussing monetising blogs, and writing in general, on Ashley’s blog today and I gloomily concluded that I’m not good enough at selling myself to make writing a really good career for me, but as I don’t seem to be good enough at anything else, I feel I have to try it anyway.

I feel I should be able to pitch articles to various Jewish sites, but somehow I don’t know how to generate ideas, and, as I said, Jewish kiruv (outreach) sites tend to like a ‘hook’ linking the topic to the news (which means writing very quickly) or to popular culture (which means writing quickly and also having more pop cultural awareness than I’ve ever had). They generally aren’t interested in a straightforward devar Torah or textual/philosophical insight, as they’re aiming at people who aren’t frum, trying to show the relevance of Judaism to their own world of politics and pop culture. Some people I knew from Hevria write for the Haredi press, but I don’t think I have the right understanding of frum culture for that, and I don’t want to work for papers that won’t print photos of women (which is all of the Haredi papers now, sadly — despite this, the people I know who write for them are women. I don’t think they like the situation, but they seem to have accepted it, on some level). I tried pitching to less religious Jewish newspapers in the UK a number of years ago, but didn’t get anywhere.

***

Other than that, I didn’t do a lot today. I Skyped E for a while and went for a walk at dusk, when it was cooler and did a tiny bit of Torah study, but I didn’t get to write more of my novel, which was a shame.

The fast is over now, and I should think about heading for bed, but it’s too hot to sleep and despite/because my disrupted sleep last night/this morning, I don’t feel at all tired.

All In My Head?

I don’t usually comment on the Rationalist Judaism blog (which is basically a critique of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community, despite the misleading title), as people on both sides can be aggressive and unwilling to listen. But I left a comment on this post. It left me thinking about my position in the Orthodox world (Modern Orthodox as well as Haredi).

I always felt I didn’t fit in in the frum (religious Jewish) world, in the Haredi community, the Modern Orthodox community, the unusual world of the Oxford University Jewish Society. But I always feel I don’t fit in anywhere, and that may be just my own perception due to autism, low self-esteem, social anxiety or any number of things. It could be that I could fit in, IF I could find the right community (probably Modern Orthodox) and if I can overcome my social anxiety. I wonder how I can do this, given that CBT didn’t work so well here and autism-adjusted CBT is not likely to be forthcoming for me for a long time. It also makes my personal history more depressing, in a way, if I could have had friends and fitted in if only I had known how to do it. All those wasted, lonely years.

The alternative is that I really didn’t fit in, and then I really don’t know how I will fit in in future, particularly given low self-esteem, autism, social anxiety, etc. I guess being married will automatically help me fit into the Orthodox community a bit better, and E has superior social skills to me, although I’m not sure we would be trying to connect with the same people.

As an aside, I think the reason I still think of Hevria so much, and with such mixed feelings, is that that was the place where I should really have fitted in, and somehow I always felt I didn’t quite manage it. Again, that may have been all in my head (when I was suicidal, a bunch of Hevria writers emailed me to send moral support, which I did not expect, particularly as I’d barely connected with some of them), but then, I did feel upset that I was never asked to become a regular writer, even though the people running the site knew I wanted to be one, and they ran my pieces occasionally as guest posts, and that made me feel I wasn’t quite fully there.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, and I have to get ready for Shabbat anyway.

Novel Stuff and More

Yesterday was a wedding preparation day. I discussed some apprehensions with my rabbi mentor and felt better afterwards. I booked plane tickets to get to New York in late August for my civil wedding. I still need to book a hotel and get insurance. I had some difficulties booking, so that took a lot of time and meant I couldn’t do much else. I think that Torah study and exercise are going to go down the priority list for a while.

Today at work, J sent me out to get some keys cut (special keys that can’t be cut quickly). He said I should drop them off and he would collect them later, but when I got there, I was told they would be ready in forty-five minutes and so texted J to ask if he wanted me to wait. He said yes, so I went to a nearby park that was somewhat sheltered. Unfortunately, after forty-five minutes, the keys were not ready. I was told to come back in another fifteen minutes. I thought if I went back to the park, I would get there in time to come back, so I just hung around near the shop, which was a big mistake, as I had no hat and got a headache. I took solpadeine when I got back to the office, but the headache came and went all afternoon and then got worse on the way home (the Tube is hot, loud and jolts). I did eventually feel better (no headache) around dinner time, but I feel pretty exhausted.

Incidentally, when I went to get the keys cut, I saw Howard Jacobson. I was too shy to speak to him though. What do you say, anyway? “Aren’t you Booker Prize winning novelist Howard Jacobson? I read two of your books. I quite liked them.” Eh.

In the evening, I submitted my novel to two more agents. I’m trying to do this faster, so I can reach more agents, as I only reached agent number twenty today, which is not very good (admittedly I’ve paused the agent quest a number of times for various reasons, most recently to see if I was going to be accepted onto the emerging writers’ programme). The problem is that every agent has different requirements (first chapter, first ten pages, first three chapters, first fifty pages, synopsis, no synopsis…) so it’s hard to do a standardised query letter and just fire it out rapidly. Plus with larger agencies you could have to read half a dozen or more agent profiles trying to work out which would be the best fit. The profiles are full of unhelpful statements like, “I would like to see a horror novel that breaks new ground” or “I would like to see the next Harry Potter” — it’s easier to say that than to do it, or even to work out what doing it would actually mean. They all want POC and LGBT, but say nothing about frum (religious Jewish) Jews (are we not “other” enough?). Anyway, I’m aiming to submit to two a week from now on until I finish going through the big directory of agencies that I’m using. I also sorted out a big folder of receipts and invoices going back to 2018, so I guess it was a fairly productive evening, considering I didn’t feel great.

***

I’m worried I’m going to end up going back on Facebook, despite drama, politics and comparing myself to others. There are a few reasons. E is encouraging me to start some kind of social and/or support group for adult Jews with autism when we get married, and that would probably start with some kind of FB page. Lately I’ve been listening to the Orthodox Conundrum podcast and am curious about the discussions on their FB page that they plug on the podcasts, which might be interesting and a way of making contact with more Modern Orthodox Jews, which might help me feel more integrated into the community and less self-conscious about all the reasons I think frum people might reject me. Then yesterday I realised that the vague plans I have for doing freelance proofreading to supplement my income might be enhanced if I also offered proofreading services specifically for Jewish-themed documents with relevant non-English words. But this would mean networking, which nowadays means FB. I am not hugely happy about this, although I do wonder if it will have a positive side. (Also, bad though networking on FB is, it beats networking in a room full of scary, real-life people.)

***

I spent £55 on books for research for my novel. It was probably somewhat extravagant, given that I’ve already started writing and so perhaps should be thought to have done my research. I was beginning to wonder if there were things I didn’t know that I didn’t know, if that makes sense, and when I was doing my MA dissertation, we were told to start writing while researching, because research informs writing, but writing informs research too. I guess the purchase is probably also motivated a bit by the desire to indulge my curiosity on certain matters that may be relevant, but will probably be interesting either way.

***

I’ve been reading On Repentance on the way to work. It’s a sort of transcription of various shiurim (religious lectures) on repentance given by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, as reconstructed from notes by Rabbi Pinchas Peli. I struggled with it today, though. A while back, I listened to Haredi activist Yehudis Fletcher’s account of how she was abused by Todros Grynhaus, a respected Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) rabbi and school teacher. Part of her account is that, after a police investigation into Grynhaus was started, he was still allowed to lead Rosh Hashanah services in an Orthodox shul (synagogue).

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the person leading the prayers is supposed to be representing the community before God in praying for forgiveness and life, so this was the ultimate hypocrisy. This image is somehow stuck in my head and I kept thinking about it while reading Rav Soloveitchik’s writing on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and repentance. I’m not sure I can really put it into words, but I guess it (Grynhaus being allowed to lead the services) seems to encapsulate the discomfort I sometimes feel about the contemporary Orthodox world, that there are people who are accepted and there are people on the margins, often through no fault of their own, and somehow Rav Soloveitchik’s words about repentance and forgiveness won’t apply until we root out abuse and victimisation and integrate those on the margins.

Unfortunately, I don’t really know what I can do about it. Is it even my fight? I think it’s everyone’s fight… but also it’s not a fight I know from the inside. Part of me feels I should stick to autism and mental illness. The same part thinks that writing about abuse in both my unpublished novel and my work in progress is an act of appropriation[1], and my interest in abuse in the frum community generally is mere ghoulishness and sensation-seeking. I don’t know.

I can’t remember how I started becoming interested in abuse, but I suspect it was partly from my OCD, that I was worried I could become an abuser, so I engaged in OCD ‘checking’ behaviours, reading about the lives and characteristics of abusers to check that I was different. This was probably not the best way to approach the subject. Somewhere along the line, I felt that I was on the margins of Orthodox life because of my mental health and neurodiversity, and that that somehow made me responsible for others who might not be able to speak out. This may be arrogance.

(There is also the issue that as a self-proclaimed “Tory anarchist” (if that even means anything) who thinks identity politics has gone too far and whose response to political news these days is mostly quietism, I would make an unlikely Social Justice Warrior.)

Among the books I ordered for my work in progress yesterday (in fact, making up about half of the £55 price tag) was When Rabbis Abuse by Elana Maryles Sztokman. To be honest, I’m not sure how relevant it is to my novel. My work in progress was supposed to be about addiction, rather than abuse, but somehow the idea of abuse got into it, and has grown and grown, and now I’m not sure where to take it, if anywhere. I hope the book might help me decide what to do. But I do vaguely wonder if I know what I’m doing, and why.

[1] I have issues about the whole concept of appropriation, which would potentially limit authors to autobiography if taken to its logical solution, but this isn’t the time to go into them. Suffice to say here that I’m worried of using someone else’s pain to sell my books.

The Tribe of Dan and Not Being Left Behind

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.

Boundaries, and Going to Dark Places

I probably drank too much coffee and especially tea at work today, as on the way home I became somewhat anxious, which may have been fuelled by caffeine. I did use some coping strategies my therapist suggested, and they seemed to help. There is still some “something will go wrong and stop E and I marrying,” fear that I’m trying to keep under control.

I do think at some point I need to have a conversation with my rabbi mentor and/or therapist about boundaries in marriage. I mean this in a slightly atypical way. It’s not about setting boundaries for myself in terms of actions, but boundaries of responsibility where I can say, “This is E’s decision, I don’t need to act as if I’m morally responsible for it.” I think I usually take on too much moral responsibility for the decisions of those around me (e.g. with my parents or at work) and this has led to a lot of anxiety in the past, including today. I need to find a way to deal with this once I get married or I’ll drive E and myself mad.

***

I listened to another Orthodox Conundrum podcast while doing a mindless data-entry task at work, this time journalist and rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife — in the Orthodox world, that’s a job title) Avital Chizik-Goldschmidt speaking about being a rabbi’s wife and also an investigative journalist. It made me think again about whether my mission in life is to be some kind of frum writer. I hope it is, and I have expressed that hope here many times, but I can’t know it until I get more things published, and paid for them (so far I’ve been published in a fairly respectable number of professional and semi-professional places, but paid for almost none of them).

When I looked at my life a number of years ago, when my depression (or autistic burnout, whatever it was) was at it’s height, I could not see any positive kind of future or role for myself anywhere in the world. I was just marking time until I died, aware that might not be for many decades. Then I had my diversion into academic librarianship, which was promising, but eventually turned out to be a wrong turn. Now I’m contemplating a new career (as opposed to job, which I already have), as a writer, and I wonder if this will be a wrong turn too. I hope not, or at least that it leads somewhere good even if it’s not where I expect.

A while back, I would have answered the feeling of being called with, “Ah, Lord God! I don’t know how to speak, for I am still a boy!” (Yirmiyahu/Jeremiah 1.6) Now, I’m saying, “Here I am! Send me!” (Yishayah/Isaiah 6.8) But I don’t know if that’s the right thing to say, if I want to go from ego rather than mission, or if this is really my mission at all. Maybe I’m supposed to do something else. Maybe I’m just a spear-carrier in the drama of life, watching other people having speaking parts, my mission being trying not to be envious of the stars, and not bumping into the scenery on my way out.

In the podcast, Chizik-Goldschmidt spoke of the need for more frum investigative journalists. She didn’t say this, but I think the number of genuine investigative journalists in the frum world is basically one: her, and she mostly writes for non-frum periodicals because the frum ones would never publish an article on, for example, frum women who have had abortions or fraudulent frum charities.

I couldn’t be, and don’t want to be, a journalist. I struggle to imagine any autistic person being an investigative journalist like that; too much speaking to people and reading people, reading between the lines and so on. But I would like to write books that get under the skin of the type of people that a journalist like Chizik-Goldschmidt would write about, in a more dramatic and psychological way than a journalist can do.[1] That’s what I did in my (unpublished) first novel, about a frum high-functioning autistic and a frum woman in an abusive relationship. That’s what I’m trying to do in my current novel, about a rabbi with a pornography addiction. And lately I find myself wanting to write about child abuse in the frum community and the way it’s covered up by the powers that be. I even find myself wondering if I could write from the point of view of an abuser (to be honest, probably not, I think it would upset me too much and be tricky to do, but it’s worth playing with ideas).

I want to go to the dark places, and to the marginal people, to people who (like me) don’t quite fit into the frum world, to people who are ignored or squashed down to fit into a box. People who can’t quite be what they’re “supposed” to be, however hard they try. I guess I could defend this by saying I want to “elevate the fallen sparks” that have fallen into the dark places, but I think it’s curiosity, imagination and empathy as much as anything else, the part of me that thinks, “What would I do in that situation?” or “How could such a person live with themselves?” when I read the news. I just hope writing turns into something meaningful, to me and to others, and isn’t another dead end. I would consider myself successful if a few people struggling in the frum community write to me to say I really “get” them, even if some important people criticise my books. But first I just want to get my novel published!

[1] It occurred to me after writing this that fiction-writing perhaps isn’t an obvious autistic career either. Writers need empathy. Contrary to popular belief, autistic people do have emotional empathy (feeling what others feel). We just don’t have cognitive empathy (the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and imagine what they would do). I suspect I get around this by thinking out my characters’ motivations and actions in a very conscious, step-by-step way, the same way I function in social situations, and by doing a fair amount of research into how real people have behaved in similar situations, both of which may be beneficial for the novel after all.

***

Speaking of which, now that I know I didn’t get on the emerging writer’s programme, I’m going back to submitting my first novel to agents. I want to submit to two a week.

In one of the Jewish newspapers, there was an interview today with a Jewish agent. It focused on a book he wrote himself, but I searched for him and found his contact details. I submitted my novel to him, although in the interview he said he receives about 5,000 submissions a year or which he takes on three or four, which is not a great ratio for me.

Re-reading the synopsis I wrote of the novel for submission, there is a lot of mental illness and suicide in there. I guess that’s where I was when I was writing it, or rather beforehand, as a lot of it was based on my life until then. It does feel kind of depressing, though, and I’m not surprised no one has really picked it up until now. The plot strand that isn’t based on my life, about an abusive marriage, seems a lot more interesting to me now. I vaguely feel I should ditch the autism/mental illness/suicide plot and rewrite the novel expanding the abusive marriage storyline, but (a) I’m writing another novel now and (b) I’m not sure I have enough to say to expand it to a full novel without it being worth starting from scratch. Still, if I hadn’t written the semi-autobiographical stuff, I would never have had the confidence to start a novel and to learn that I can actually create characters and plots from scratch, so it served a purpose.

How I Broke the Shidduch System

I’m still thinking about dealing with Impostor Syndrome and with other people’s success (two slightly different topics, but related)(also, I tried to link to Ashley’s Impostor Syndrome post when I wrote about it yesterday, but WordPress ate the link somehow — sorry Ashley!).

I want to think, “I’m trying to live according to my values: to support E and my family emotionally; to be kind and empathetic to others; to try to connect with God and Torah; to try to connect with the Jewish community across time and space; to be thoughtful and curious and honest; to be creative sometimes; and to focus on personal growth; and if I don’t always succeed, at least I succeed sometimes.”[1] Still, it is hard to think about that a lot of the time. I don’t really want to be super-rich, but I do worry about how E and I will make ends meet basically relying on one and a bit wages between the two of us, without relying on our parents. And, as I said the other day, part of me would like my opinion to be taken seriously in the Jewish community (or even more widely). I’m not proud of that thought and I don’t really think it’s a good character trait to have, but it’s there.

I hope this feeling might go away. I used to be very caught up in self-pity and that’s reduced (although not entirely vanished) since being diagnosed autistic, getting a permanent job and getting engaged. Maybe the desire to be taken seriously by others will subside at some point too if I can deal with whatever’s prompting it, probably a feeling of not being taken seriously, and even being ignored and bullied, as a child, as well as low self-esteem generally.

[1] Sadly, my biggest failure is probably being kind and empathetic to my parents. I know it’s hard to live with your parents when you’re pushing forty. And I know my parents have their own character traits and issues that make it hard to live with them sometimes, and that sometimes those things are a particularly bad fit with my autistic needs/disabilities. But I still I feel I should do better. I want to say more about this, but I’ve never worked out how to write about the situation without going into lashon hara (improper speech) and dishonouring parents territory. Maybe it will be easier once I move out.

***

I watched a YouTube video of family therapist Elisheva Liss being interviewed by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg and his wife Yocheved. From what Liss said on her weekly newsletter, I thought it would be about narrative therapy. However, I must have misunderstood, as they spoke mainly about shidduchim (the whole system of arranged dating in the Orthodox Jewish world) and marriage. I probably would not have listened to the whole thing if I realised that they would not be talking about narrative therapy.

I used to think I was too defective for the shidduch system to work for me, but maybe it’s more the case that the shidduch system is too defective to work for me. I’m not sure. It’s true that in the end I met E away from the system, and that E would never have been in the system in the first place. And I am aware that most shadchanim (matchmakers) and rabbis would throw their hands up in despair about E and me, with both of us having some ongoing psychological issues, neither of us earning very much money, and both of us on somewhat different religious levels. I do worry about those things a bit, although less so since we got engaged, but ultimately it’s just the two of us in this relationship/marriage and we arguably have skills that many twenty-somethings in the shidduch system don’t have in terms of self-knowledge and values-awareness; knowledge of each other from dating together so long; honest communication; willingness to compromise; and just general maturity. Not that I would say that I am particularly mature, but I have to believe that I can’t have got to (nearly) thirty-nine without picking up some maturity and life-skills I didn’t have at twenty-four. To be honest, E and I both need someone who understands and accepts us, with all our issues, more than we need someone on the same religious level. I know that thinking that probably would not be accepted in much of the frum world, but then it’s probably why I couldn’t find a partner in the frum shidduch-dating world.

***

I did a bit of novel writing today, but I struggled with procrastination. I’ve been writing quite a lot lately and maybe need a break for a day or two (more than just Shabbat). I’d like to finish reading over this chapter first. I thought I would do that today, but E asked me to help her with an important wedding thing that rightly took priority. That left me feeling a bit anxious. We are making progress with this wedding, but sometimes it feels that for every worry we knock on the head, another one emerges. I can’t go into details, but it did remind me of something Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tzl once said, that everyone thinks a moral dilemma is a choice between something right and something wrong, but it’s not; a moral dilemma is a choice between two things that are both right and you can only pick one, or two things that are wrong, but you have to pick one i.e. a situation in which there can be no perfect response. As a perfectionist, this sort of situation makes me anxious and stressed.

Impostor!

I struggled to get up for volunteering, even though I had slept for nearly eight hours. In a weird way, I hope I do have an issue like sleep apnoea, because it feels like it might be easier to deal with than assuming this is a medication side-effect (I probably can’t come of my meds completely) or autistic exhaustion (which is more or less incurable). Although E might not want me to have sleep apnoea as sufferers tend to snore. If I ever shared a bed with someone, that might have made it easier to have an objective view of my sleep patterns and behaviour.

Volunteering was good, although I felt socially awkward again at times. Sometimes I feel I would like to know what other people really think of me, to see if it really is as bad as I sometimes fear when I feel I’m being very autistic and am not doing the right thing in a group situation. I also wasn’t always sure if people were teasing me or genuinely annoyed with me. I’m really not great at reading middle-aged women. For what it’s worth, I think they were teasing me. Someone said I looked young for my age, which is nice, although weirdly it’s common for people to think this about people on the spectrum. It’s been suggested we don’t show emotions on our faces so we wrinkle less than neurotypicals. Who knows? The same woman asked me what I do for a living, which is never a question I like to have to field; lately I’ve been telling people “I work in an office and am building a career as a writer and proof-reader,” although the proof-reading is really an aspiration for after E and my wedding and when we’re settled in together. It’s funny that Ashley posted something today on Impostor Syndrome and used the example of an author as something which has a social role beyond the literal meaning of the term. I struggle to see myself as a writer as I have written so little that has been professionally published, let alone that I have received money for.

I struggled to get down to some novel writing in the afternoon, being distracted by outside events and also procrastinating, but I did eventually manage at least an hour of writing, which was good. The procrastination did mean that I didn’t have time to submit my first novel to more agents (I stopped when I applied for the emerging writer’s programme as I was supposed to be unpublished), especially as I cooked dinner, went to online shiur (religious class) and skyped E. I might submit my manuscript on workday evenings rather than working on my new novel, so that I don’t burn out the next day.

***

I got an official rejection from the emerging writers’ programme. I’m trying not to take it too personally, or to see it as a sign that I will never be published or am wasting my time writing. I guess that would be Impostor Syndrome again.

***

More on Impostor Syndrome. A number of years ago, I was assistant librarian at a non-Orthodox Jewish educational institution. One day I overheard one of the library users, a Reform rabbi and academic, describe herself as suffering from “Impostor Syndrome.” I didn’t think anything of it at the time. A number of years later, I read a newspaper article she wrote about doing Daf Yomi (the daily Talmud study cycle) and how she felt uncomfortable that (male) Orthodox rabbis might not want her to study it. She said this not in a “they’re so sexist” way and more in a “wanting to be accepted” way. It is doubtful that the Impostor Syndrome comment referred to this, but it linked the two concepts in my head.

A while later, another female rabbi and academic passed away and donated her books to the library. I spent a long time searching through them and cataloguing them. I feel that I can get to learn a person more through looking at their books than anything else (not literally anything else, but than a lot of things). I was interested and surprised that she had a lot of books on Orthodox sub-groups, the Hasidism and the Mitnagedim (originally, the opponents of the Hasidim, although these days to an outsider they would doubtless seem very similar, and the rivalry no longer exists in the same way). Later, I came across a journal article by her where she said that she worried that the Hasidic rabbis she read about and admired would reject her because of her gender and that she wanted to be accepted by them.

These anecdotes surprised me because I thought the women involved, both very successful in multiple spheres (rabbinate, academia) and at least one very feminist and with a reputation for, as the cliche goes, “not suffering fools gladly”[1], would have no interest in what Orthodox rabbis, and especially Orthodox rabbis from centuries ago, would have to say about their lives. I would have thought that if they thought about being rejected by these men, they would simply tell them to “**** off.” And yet they clearly were conscious of the fear of rejection, and conscious enough to share that vulnerability in print. I have to say it endeared them to me enormously because of my own feelings of inadequacy. I was pleased to see two people who I saw as successful and psychologically balanced in a way that I was not suffering from similar doubts to me. I also feel I am not fully accepted in the Orthodox world, and unlike them, it is where I focus most of my spiritual life.

I’m not quite sure where I’m going with this, except to say that Impostor Syndrome is probably a lot more widespread than most people are willing to admit.

[1] I’ve never been entirely sure who is glad to suffer a fool.

***

I finished reading the James Bond novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (SPOILERS). I’ve read about half the Bond books now and I think this might have been my favourite, which surprised me as I don’t rate the film that highly (the second half of the film is good, but I find the first half slow). Blofeld’s plan is bizarre though: set up a super-expensive Alpine resort for the treatment of allergies, then use it to hypnotise “nice” but somewhat naive young women, all of whom work in agriculture (but come somehow afford treatment at this exclusive resort), into spreading biological warfare agents back home to destroy British agriculture. This is apparently funded by the KGB, and Blofeld will profit by selling sterling at a profit before the economy tanks. A lot of Doctor Who stories have the problem of the villain’s plans being far too crazy, convoluted and impractical to work in the real world (particularly when the Master is around) and this is in the same category.

(If I’m talking about Blofeld and the Master in the same breath, I should probably note that The Mind of Evil is Thunderball in a prison and Frontier in Space retells You Only Live Twice on an interstellar scale.)

I think Ian Fleming missed a trick by killing off James Bond’s wife shortly after their wedding. Tracy would have been an interesting recurring character and the series could have done with a strong female character, although it would have killed off the bed-hopping aspect of the novels (which doesn’t interest me anyway). Even though I don’t like sad endings, I thought the ending of the novel did work, which I don’t feel about the film, perhaps because there is more foreshadowing in the novel.

Materialism, Ego and Spirituality

I listened to an Orthodox Conundrum podcast about materialism today. I had mixed feelings about it. The guest, Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, spoke about contemporary America being defined by four ‘isms’: narcissism, hedonism, consumerism and exhibitionism (the UK is probably not so bad, but still affected by all four). This is probably true, on some level, but I felt Rabbi Wieder and host Rabbi Scott Kahn struggled to define their terms, particularly as they felt this is an area where something may be within the letter of the law, but not the spirit. As they said, it’s very subjective; person X may say that person Y is being hedonistic and consumerist, but person Z may say the same about person X.

Historically, there have been people in the Jewish community who have been very wealthy and lived extravagantly, and they were often great philanthropists and ambassadors for the community to the non-Jewish world e.g. Sir Moses Montefiore and the Rothschilds. In modern days, maybe someone like Lord Levy. If they hadn’t been blessed with great wealth, and used some of it not just for philanthropy, but to enter high society and provide a Jewish voice there, the Jewish community as a whole would have suffered. Maybe this is less obvious in the less aristocratic USA. I feel someone lucky enough to be rich and influential needs to do some serious soul-searching about what their role in life and the Jewish community is and why God wants them to have that wealth and what the best thing for them to do with it is (I have never had this problem myself!).

Incidentally, I worry a bit about being exhibitionist myself on my blog, but I think I tend to talk most about my failures and gloss over my successes (like the Kotzker Hasidim who were said to sin publicly and perform mitzvot (commandments) in secret to avoid pride in their behaviour).

The podcast did at least make me realise how E and I would have struggled to raise a frum (religious Jewish) family in the USA, given the astronomical price of private Jewish school fees (in the UK there are Jewish state schools), on top of needing to find me a job with health insurance.

By coincidence (or not), while having these thoughts about materialism, part of my work today involved inventorying someone’s flat. (It’s a long story how this was relevant to my job.) If you want to test how much envy you have, try inventorying someone’s furniture, complete with price tags! And they weren’t even paying for it as it was being provided by their employer. It did make me worry how E and I will survive on about the equivalent of one salary between us, even without kids. And we’re limited to staying in Jewish communities, which tend not to be the cheapest. People we try to befriend will probably be earning a lot more than us too. It’s kind of depressing.

Also depressing was discovering that I didn’t get on the emerging writers’ programme. I tried not to get my hopes up, but part of me was hoping that this would be the big turning point in my life, or at least in my writing career. But it was not to be. Maybe it’s for the best, as it allows me to pause writing my novel when I need to, to focus on my wedding. I can also go back to submitting my first novel to agents, something I stopped doing because I thought the project I submitted for the emerging writers’ programme was supposed to end up as my first novel.

It does all make me wonder what my role in life is, whether writing is a part of that, and whether E and I will ever be living above subsistence level (or, more realistically, living without parental support). In this context, Rabbis Kahn and Wieder spoke about focusing on spirituality rather than materialism, which is a word I’ve always struggled with. It seems very nebulous and ill-defined. As I’ve said before, I see the quest for God and for meaning as more a part of my life than finding God or and meaning. I suspect some people would see this as spirituality, while others would wonder why I can’t just find God and then I would be spiritual. Likewise, I try to focus on spiritual growth, rather than attainment, but I am very bad at maintaining this perspective without slipping into self-criticism.

I saw an article recently that said that spirituality is about trying to adopt God’s perspective on the world. I did not like this, at least not in the way it was presented. I feel God’s perspective is decentred and plural (God can see things from literally everyone’s point of view). Hence, the Talmud is a pluralistic text, with multiple answers to any question, and it’s more concerned with presenting all those answers in the internally strongest way than with seeing which answer is better than the others (part of the reason Talmud study is so difficult is that it’s often unclear which side actually ‘wins’ the argument). And scholars like Rav Kook z”tzl, Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tzl and Rabbi Steinsaltz z”tzl saw many religions as being legitimate paths to God.

Perhaps related to all this I had another, “Oh, there’s someone I used to know; they’re a lot more successful than me” moment today. The fact that this person was the one who left me with a life-long feeling that I am inferior in the frum community for never having gone to yeshivah did not help, particularly as I feel that, on some level, that is precisely why I’ve never really fitted in (well, that and being a socially anxious autistic).

To be honest, a lot depends on how you define ‘successful’ here, but I hope — hope! — that one day I will earn enough money to help support E and hopefully some children or at least a child. And I would like to think that people are interested in my ideas, at least by publishing and reading my books and maybe by sharing them in other ways (I’ve always had a weird desire for a monthly column in the Jewish Chronicle, I’m not entirely sure why). This is ego, I admit. After a childhood of receiving no attention, or only negative attention (bullying etc.), I would like to be taken seriously as a writer for the sake of my own ego, but as I intimated with regard to the super-rich community machers (people who are very involved in the community), sometimes spirituality is about trying to harness your gifts to help others, not supress them or give them away.

Yes, I’m aware there are a dozen or so people who take my writing here seriously enough to regularly read. I’m grateful, although I’m a bit bemused as to why anyone would read these rambles, mostly about my autistic struggles, as I don’t consider them anything like my ‘real’ writing.

Speaking of which, when I got home from work, I managed to work on my novel for quite a while. I sat at the computer for an hour and a half. Not all of that time was spent writing, but quite a lot was, so that at least was positive.

“Everyone’s a superhero, everyone’s a Captain Kirk”: Diversity and Me

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).

Shul Minchah

Torah 50m

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.’

Brief Update and Amusing Photo

Things I did on Wednesday

I don’t weigh myself consistently, and really I should work out if there’s a problem with my digital scales (they seemed to be giving inconsistent readings when I was using them years ago) instead of using my parents’ traditional scales. But I think I’ve lost a couple of kilograms of weight recently and am now technically not overweight (just barely), although I still have a tummy.

I spoke to an NHS psychiatrist. I told him about my problems coming off olanzapine and he felt I would have to stay on a low maintenance dose indefinitely. On the plus side, he felt that I could reduce my clomipramine (which is the drug I am most anxious to reduce, because of side-effects including weight gain). He said he would write to my GP to tell him how I should reduce it safely and that he would copy me in, so hopefully I can start on that soon.

I did some novel writing. I wanted to write for a solid hour before therapy; as it happened, it was interrupted by the psychiatrist phoning, but I still wrote about 900 words, which is very good.

Things I Did On Thursday

After work, I did over an hour of novel writing, writing 700 words. I’m not sure it’s healthy to be so focused on how much time I spend writing and especially how many words I write, but it does help me to see that I’m making progress, especially when it feels hard, like today, writing things outside of my comfort zone. I do wish I could spend a longer period writing. I feel like the first twenty minutes are spent ‘warming up’.

I find out if I’ve been accepted to the emerging writers’ programme on Monday. I am quite nervous. I’m not sure if I’m more worried about being rejected or accepted. I do not know what, exactly, the programme entails. I know there are seminars, peer support, and networking sessions, but I don’t know how many or when. I’m worried about potential conflicts with work, volunteering and especially getting married on two continents. I don’t know if I will have to read out my rather personal writing to a group. I worry about being too sexually explicit, but also about being too coy and ‘religious’ and not explicit enough. I worry about being thought sexist or too religious. Part of me is hoping I don’t get accepted to avoid all of this. I guess I’ll know soon enough.

***

I saw this near the station this morning:

I should probably explain to non-UK readers that a barrister is a type of lawyer, one who represents you in court (as opposed to a solicitor, who deals with documents, commerce, property and so on). I assume they are actually looking for a barista, or perhaps they just want to sue people who take too long to drink their morning coffee.

The Glittering Prizes

I spent an hour writing a whole long post yesterday evening and then WordPress ate it! The autosave somehow jammed mid-save and when I went to publish, I could not, because it was still trying to save. I tried to save manually, but that didn’t work either. In desperation, I refreshed the page. I’ve done this in the past when the autosave has jammed, and I’ve lost a minute or two of work, but this wiped the whole hour. I rewrote most of what I wrote yesterday, plus more on today, but I struggled with my energy and didn’t write in as much detail in places. So apologies for a somewhat abbreviated post.

***

Rabbi B phoned me at work yesterday. I got rather anxious waiting for him to phone, more because I was worried about being interrupted or missing the call than for what he would say, but I was a bit worried about that too. He said E and I should get in touch with a beit din (rabbinical court) in America about confirming E’s Jewish (and unmarried) status. E got upset about this, fearing extra bureaucracy and wait time. I felt we should get in touch with the Beth Din while also moving forward with our civil wedding in the US. I think E was surprised that I wanted to commit to the civil wedding without being 100% certain the religious one will happen as we want. But I am very committed to making this happen no matter what, and I think the chance of us not getting married at all religiously is pretty remote. We did eventually agree about this and wrote to the American beit din today. There is a $100 charge, though, which is annoying.

Otherwise work yesterday was dull, with a sudden burst of stuff near the end of the day. I did get to listen to some good podcasts while doing boring work copying and pasting or copy typing data and also walking home from the station.

One podcast was the Orthodox Conundrum interview with lesbian Orthodox Jewish comedian Leah Forster. It was interesting to hear her say she forgives the community that disowned her and that she still identifies with it, given my difficulties fitting into the frum world. I also found it interesting that she feels strongly that God loves her, something I struggle with a lot. I would have liked to have heard more about her beliefs here.

I also listened to a Deep Meaningful Conversations podcast on Jewish inspiration. I struggle with inspiration a lot. Listening to this made me wonder if this is due to alexithymia (difficulty identifying and understanding my own emotions) and poor autobiographical memory, both autistic traits. This would explain why I invest so much time and energy in Jewish activities (prayer, religious study, mitzvah performance) while struggling consciously to explain why Judaism matters so much to me. Beyond this, as I’ve mentioned recently, I see the religious life as being more about the quest for a God Who “hides His face” and the journey to Him (which is also an inner journey to the self and journey to connection with others) than about times of connection and inspiration. I also have a strong connection to other Jews, now and in the past, and to Judaism as a body of literature and thought.

This podcast and another Orthodox Conundrum interview with Rabbi Yonah Bookstein about “kiruv versus outreach” made me think about what kind of Jewish household E and I will build together. It is clear that it will have to be one that presents Judaism as interesting and fun and not just something that must be done. I (somehow) inspired my parents, my sister and E to increase their observance levels by example rather than by actively trying to argue with them. I am not at all sure how I did this, but apparently I did it. This relates to the difference Rabbi Bookstein described in the podcast between kiruv, which he sees as religious people essentially condescending to teach non-religious Jews about Judaism with the aim of making them become fully religious, and outreach, which he sees as about giving non-religious Jews meaningful Jewish experiences even if they go no further religiously and about seeing them as equals and people who can teach as well as learn. I greatly prefer the latter approach.

***

Today I found out that I had won a Jewish journalism award for the article I wrote for a Jewish website in 2021. I won the ‘honourable mention’ in my category, which is basically third place, but as first and second place went to professional journalists, this seemed impressive. Weirdly, the award also went to the editor of the site. He was very apologetic and didn’t know why they gave him the award too as he didn’t help me with it. There’s no money, but it’s a weird and somewhat annoying mistake. I wonder if they thought my autism prevented me from writing without help? Or if they thought I must have had help because I’m not a professional journalist?

I went to volunteering too and stayed for coffee afterwards this week, speaking to the woman in charge of the volunteers. We spoke a bit about my writing aspirations and I wanted to speak about the award, but found it hard to find the confidence and an opportunity and then hesitated and lost the chance.

In the afternoon, I phoned the hospital about the blank appointment letter I received. It turns out it is for the sleep clinic, but the appointment is just the doctors discussing the referral. Theoretically they could phone me then for more information if the GP left something out, but I probably won’t hear from them that day. Hopefully I would get an appointment call from the secretary the next day offering me an appointment.

More adventures in bureaucracy: I signed up to pay self-assessed income tax for the 2021-2022 tax year (when I was working in my current job, but not on a permanent contract). This was about as exciting as it sounds, but it took a non-trivial amount of time, energy and brainpower, so I’m mentioning it.

I did some novel writing after dinner, but after a while I ran out of energy, motivation, concentration or something and just ended up procrastinating, so I quit for the night. Shiur (religious class) was cancelled as the rabbi who takes it is ill, but he’d done the early afternoon class (the class takes place at 1pm and again at 8pm) and recorded it, so I watched that. I tried to sort my cluttered desk drawers at the same time, which didn’t work very well, so I had to pause it. The shiur went deeper than the previous shiurim in this series, which I appreciated, although it made multitasking harder than expected.