Secular Solstice and the Importance of Ritual

Secular Solstice cover art.I wanted to write a little bit about secular ritual and tradition and why it’s important.

To me, that is. It’s important to me. It’s not important to a lot of other people, some of whom politely shrug and say, “Not my thing,” and others of whom sneer condescendingly at those of us who need it, claiming that they’re above such silliness.

I think people leave or avoid religion for a number of different overlapping reasons. Some just don’t believe in god. Others don’t believe in god, and also resent the communal aspects of religion. I’m not a huge fan of singing in groups, either, so I can relate to that somewhat.

But mainly, my issue with religion is the superstitious and unscientific thinking, and also the frequent presence of political conservatism. Ritual is something I always loved, and still love, which is why I attended Jewish religious observances often when I was in college and wish I had the opportunity to keep doing it. Despite my atheism. Despite the fact that I disagree that I have any obligation to avoid eating meat and dairy products in the same meal.

What I continue to yearn for despite all these years of atheism is that togetherness, the feeling of being part of a larger whole, of participating in ceremonies that have existed virtually unchanged for centuries, of feeling that I could go to services on Friday night in San Francisco or London or Tokyo or Cape Town and be welcomed in virtually the same way, with the same greetings and food and songs. They will say Shabbat shalom and there will be challah and red wine, in America and in Great Britain and in Japan and in South Africa.

I don’t think there is anything like that outside of Judaism, and can’t be for decades or centuries more. I’m trying to make my peace with that.

Ritual and tradition feel good. There doesn’t have to be a rational reason and there isn’t. Chocolate feels good, too, despite being harmful in large quantities. I don’t care that there aren’t Valid Logical Reasons for loving ritual (or chocolate). There is a lot of stress and pain in life and if I can spend a Friday night feeling cheerful and whole, I will do it.

But I also know that non-secular Judaism can’t be a home for me anymore, so I’m looking for other ways to get even a fraction of that feeling. One such way is a project run by my friend Raymond Arnold, called the Secular Solstice.

Although groups of humanists/rationalists/atheists have presumably been running their own winter solstice celebrations for a while now, this particular event is an attempt to actually create a new secular ritual, a set of traditions for celebrating a winter holiday that usually goes unnoticed in the Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanzaa/New Year’s Eve pandemonium.

And it’s too bad that it does, because it’s an interesting holiday. Unlike most holidays, the solstice marks an astronomical phenomenon. People have known about it and observed it for thousands of years. From the simple physical fact of the winter solstice, people can (and do) draw all sorts of meaning.

The Secular Solstice, for instance, celebrates science and progress. It’s all about how humans overcome darkness and winter, literally and metaphorically. It’s about how even on the longest night of the year, we can look forward to the days growing longer and longer again. It’s about a lot of things, really.

The first Secular Solstice was held last year, in New York. I went with a bunch of people I care about and had one of the best holiday experiences I’ve ever had. The celebration was set up as a sort of concert with both music and short readings. Some of the songs had a sing-along component, though, for the first time possibly ever, I didn’t feel pressured or expected to actually sing (which, naturally, means that I felt comfortable enough to sing). The songs and readings were about winter, humanity, science, space, planet Earth. Not all of them resonated with me, but most did. (You can listen to them here.)

There were a few reasons I especially liked this particular event. One is that, on a psychological level, winter is just hard for me. I don’t know if I have Seasonal Affective Disorder necessarily, but I’m sensitive to extreme temperatures and to light (or lack thereof) and I find that winter saps me of physical and mental energy. Some of my favorite things–long walks, outdoor photography, swimming, reading outdoors in the sun, wearing the clothes I like–become difficult or impossible. The Secular Solstice, in a weird and possibly unintentional way, validated how much I hate winter and how much of a “big deal” it is for me to get through it without some of my favorite distractions and coping mechanisms. Unlike the other winter holidays, the Solstice doesn’t frame winter as a happy cheery beautiful time with family, snowball fights, kissing under the mistletoe, Santa Claus, and Jesus. It frames it as a challenge, but one that we nevertheless get through every year.

On a related note, the Secular Solstice also differs from a number of other humanist events in its avoidance of faux (at least to me) cheeriness. In this way, I’d contrast it with Sunday Assembly, another event I’ve started regularly attending. I do enjoy Sunday Assembly a lot, but I find myself generally unable to produce the amount of happy singing/dancing/clapping it seems to demand of me. I like my communal observances, secular or otherwise, to be a little more…I’m not sure what the word is. Solemn, maybe.

That’s something that Jewish ritual does particularly well. Most Jewish holidays (with a few notable exceptions) commemorate joyous events or concepts, but the rituals themselves often have a sort of gravity, a seriousness to them. Not every song is loud and cheerful. There is an opportunity to acknowledge adversity, loss, and melancholy.

Perhaps those who lead secular observances worry that people will be pushed away by too much solemnity, that it’ll be too much like religion. Many some people would be, which is why I understand why events like Sunday Assembly are the way they are. But the Secular Solstice differs in that it has so many quiet, beautiful, powerful moments, some of which might even feel quite sad. This, too, was an integral part of the experience for me.

But it had joyful and funny moments, too, as well as plenty of hopeful ones. I felt like I experienced pretty much a full gamut of emotions throughout the concert. Moreover, when it was over, I felt like I had actually observed something, in the sense of observing a holiday or a tradition. I had connected with the other people in the room, as well as with ideas that I believe in–the hope that we can overcome challenges, the ability of scientific progress to improve our lives, and the fact that it is okay to feel sad and scared.

Traditions, including new ones, help me mark the passage of time and find some sort of meaning in it. They also help me connect with people who share my values. While religious values serve a similar function, the values themselves are obviously quite different.

Unfortunately, unlike religious observances, secular ones appeal to a small minority of people and do not have the financial and social capital that theistic congregations can provide. That’s why, if you want to see secular traditions and communities flourish, it’s important to support them.

If this is something that matters to you too, I urge you to support the Secular Solstice through their Kickstarter campaign.

Sarah Silverman and Mandatory Childbearing

Sarah Silverman in “Let My People Vote.”

A few weeks ago, a certain Rabbi Rosenblatt that I’d never heard of before wrote an open letter to Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman, criticizing her for…her political beliefs? Her comedic style? Her fashion sense?

Nope, for her decision not to have children. Which apparently means that she’s not “really” Jewish, which means that she shouldn’t be using Jewish terminology in her comedy, as she did in her video, “Let My People Vote.”

You will soon turn 42 and your destiny, as you stated, will not include children. You blame it on your depression, saying you don’t want to pass it on to another generation.

I find that confusing, coming from someone as perceptive as you are in dissecting flawed arguments. Surely you appreciate being alive and surely, if the wonder of your womb were afflicted with your weaknesses and blessed with your strengths, it would be happy to be alive, too.

I am not surprised that Rosenblatt finds this confusing, and I wouldn’t hesitate to guess that he’s never been depressed. Unless you have, you don’t really understand what it’s like, and why someone might not wish to inflict that on their children. No doubt the wonder of Silverman’s womb would indeed be happy to be alive. But it’s not like her unconceived children can regret the fact that she chose not to have them, can they?

You said you wouldn’t get married until gay people can. Now they can. And you still haven’t married. I think, Sarah, that marriage and childrearing are not in the cards for you because you can’t focus on building life when you spend your days and nights tearing it down.

This is such a childish thing to say. “OHHH, but you said you wouldn’t get married till gay people could, and now they can! Why haven’t you gotten married, then? Huh? HUH?!”

One thing to note is that Rosenblatt is completely and predictably ignorant about the state of same-sex marriage rights. You would be forgiven for assuming that because Rosenblatt is Jewish, he lives in New York, which recently legalized same-sex marriage. Actually, though, he’s from Texas. Not only does Texas ban same-sex marriage in its constitution, but it even had anti-sodomy laws on the books less than a decade ago. Oops.

Not only does Rosenblatt not understand basic legal reality, but he also, apparently doesn’t understand English. Silverman did not say, “Once gay people can get married, I’ll get married too.” What she actually said was this:

Not only would I not get married until everyone can, I kind of am starting to get appalled by anybody who would get married in this day and age. Anyone who considers themselves for equal rights, to get married right now seems very odd to me.

In other words, legalization of same-sex marriage is a necessary condition for Silverman to get married, but it is not a sufficient one.

Rosenblatt continues on his Quixotic quest to produce the stupidest open letter ever written:

You have made a career making public that which is private, making crude that which is intimate, making sensual that which is spiritual. You have experienced what traditional Judaism taught long ago: when you make sex a public thing it loses its potency. When the whisper is replaced with a shout there is no magic to speak about. And, in my opinion, Sarah, that is why you have had trouble forging a permanent relationship – the most basic desire of the feminine soul.

Oh, that ludicrous idea that sex is something to be kept Sacred and Secret and Intimate or else it stops being awesome. I saw this myth trotted out during the Northwestern fucksaw controversy of 2011, and here it is again. I’ll address it in detail some other time, but for now, let me just say this: it’s false.

So wrapped up is Rosenblatt in his medieval conception of “the feminine soul” that he never realizes that women who don’t want children do exist, and that childless (or childfree) women are not necessarily so because they have “trouble forging a permanent relationship.” Or because there’s anything else wrong with them, for that matter.

And I totally get that it can be very difficult to imagine that something you hold very, very dear isn’t really important to someone else, especially when it comes to life choices. Personally, I don’t really understand people who want to spend their lives doing stuff with money on computers rather than being therapists, but I’m sure that it’s not because of some terrible flaw in their character.

Judaism celebrates the monogamous, intimate relationship with a spouse as the prototype of the intimate relationship with God. Marriage, in Judaism, is holy. Family, in Judaism, is celebrated. But for you, nothing is holy; in your world, nothing is permanent. Your ideology is secular. Your culture may be Jewish, but your mind is not.

 

I think you have latched on to politics because you are searching for something to build. There is only so much pulling down one can do without feeling utterly destructive. You want to fight for a value so you take your belief – secularism – and promote it. As an Orthodox rabbi, I disagree with just about everything you say, but respect your right to say it. All I ask, respectfully, is that you not use traditional Jewish terminology in your efforts. Because doing so is a lie.

So there’s his whole thought process. Silverman isn’t married, doesn’t have/want children, and talks about sex, so therefore she’s not “really” Jewish, and therefore, she can’t use “traditional Jewish terminology.”

Ironically, the use of traditional Jewish terminology that Rosenblatt takes issue with isn’t even part of a comedy routine, and doesn’t even involve that nasty sex stuff he’s so upset by. The “Let My People Vote” video exposes Republican attempts to restrict voting rights by requiring photo IDs and shows how certain groups of people may effectively be disenfranchised by them. The only objection Rosenblatt could possibly have with the video is that it uses the word “fuck” prodigiously, in which case he should probably get over himself.

Rosenblatt ends his self-righteous and myopic letter like so:

I pray that you channel your drive and direct your passion to something positive, something that will make you a better and more positive person, something that will allow you to touch eternity and truly impact the world forever. I pray that you pursue marriage and, if you are so blessed, raise children.

 

Marriage and children will change the way you see the world. It will allow you to appreciate the stability that Judaism, the religion of your ancestors, espouses. And it will allow you to understand and appreciate the traditional lifestyle’s peace, security, and respect for human dignity – things you have spent your life, so far, undermining.

Don’t get me wrong, marriage and children can be great things. I personally look forward to both. But to pretend that they are more “positive” than political action and that they “impact the world forever” is naive and narrow-minded.

Here’s an uncomfortable truth: nobody but you, your friends, and your family (and apparently Rabbi Rosenblatt) really cares about your marriage and your children. If you’re going to get married and have kids, do it because you want to and because it’s meaningful for you, not because you want to make a mark on the world.

For that, you’ll need to actually leave your house and do something.

When Religious Minorities Oppose Freedom

Among the many different reactions garnered by Obama’s historic announcement of support for same-sex marriage, one that flew under the radar of most people–at least, most non-Jewish people–was that of two prominent Orthodox Jewish organizations, the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI) and the Orthodox Union (OU).

In a statement, the NCYI wrote:

As members of a community that abides by the precepts of the Torah, we are deeply disappointed that a growing number of prominent American leaders, including President Obama, have expressed support for same gender marriage. As a national organization dedicated to Torah values and guided by Jewish law, the National Council of Young Israel is diametrically opposed to same gender marriage, which is a concept that is antithetical to the religious principles that we live by. As firm believers that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman, we simply cannot accept a newfound social position that alters the value, definition, and sanctity of marriage as set forth in the Torah, which has guided us for thousands of years.

The interesting thing about this is that legalizing marriage between same-sex couples would have absolutely no effect on marriage and life in general within Orthodox Jewish communities. Orthodox congregations are free to define marriage as they choose (gotta love separation of church and state). For instance, Orthodox rabbis will generally not perform weddings between a Jew and a non-Jew, but that’s completely legal in the civil marriage system. Legalizing same-sex marriage doesn’t mean that Orthodox rabbis will be forced to officiate same-sex weddings, and I’m pretty sure they know that.

However, the OU statement included this line: “Such legalization is also problematic with regard to religious liberty, as dissenting institutions are pressured to support or recognize relationships they cannot.” This is false. Who, exactly, is pressuring “dissenting institutions” to officiate same-sex marriages? Their constituents, perhaps? Because that’s an entirely separate issue that has nothing to do with any presidential proclamations.

If there are any legal scholars reading this blog, they can correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that the government does not have the authority to force religious leaders to officiate weddings that they oppose on religious grounds. (I’m pretty sure that no same-sex couple would want their wedding conducted by a rabbi who is hostile to their relationship, anyway.) If what the OU is really worried about is that the cultural tide is turning with regard to gay marriage, then they might as well issue a statement condemning the majority of Americans.

But back to the point. An Orthodox Jewish law professor named Hillel Y. Levin wrote a great piece about this issue in which he explains the distinction between civil marriage and kiddushin, or a Jewish marriage. This distinction is the reason why civil marriage laws in the United States should be of absolutely no concern to observant Jewish communities. He also writes:

Unlike our Christian friends and neighbors, Jews grow up with our minority status deeply ingrained and without the instinctive expectation that our religious traditions and beliefs will naturally be reflected in the broader law and culture. As a minority within a minority, Orthodox Jews recognize that we reap the benefits of pluralism, tolerance, and accommodation. After all, if religious beliefs in this country were to orient secular law, we would find ourselves deeply disappointed and possibly threatened, just as we historically have in every other diaspora country.

What this is, then, is an unfortunate lack of perspective. While Jews have faced discrimination in the United States, as they have everywhere else in the world except Israel, the US has historically protected the rights of religious minorities, including Jews. It is by virtue of our separation of church and state that Orthodox Jews have been so free to practice their religion as they see fit. So sure, when it comes to gay marriage, they are in a rare moment of agreement with conservative Christians. But to willingly participate in the attempts of another religious group to impose its values on the rest of society seems painfully ironic.

For the record, I don’t expect Orthodox Jews to enthusiastically endorse same-sex marriage–although many do. If it’s against your religion, it’s against your religion. I didn’t expect these organizations to applaud Obama’s announcement. But I didn’t expect them to denounce it, either, because it has absolutely nothing to do with them, and it will have absolutely no effect on the lives of Orthodox Jews.

I get it, though. Sometimes people just really want to make statements on issues that should be of no concern to them (especially if said people are Jews, and I’m allowed to say that because I’m Jewish). However, a great deal of Orthodox Jews–some of whom support gay marriage and some of whom do not–believe that the NCYI and the OU shouldn’t have spoken out about Obama’s statement. Reading the comments on the petition is enlightening.

It’s disappointing to see such influential voices within my faith, which has suffered so much from discrimination and prejudice over the past two thousand years, make statements like these. American democracy has provided us with freedom of religion, but we should make sure it safeguards freedom from religion, too.

Urban Outfitters' Possibly-Accidental Holocaust Reference

Aside from perhaps American Apparel, there might not be any clothing retailer that people love to hate more than Urban Outfitters.

This time, UO has angered the Jewish community by selling a t-shirt that seems made to resemble the patches that Jews were forced to wear on their clothes during the Holocaust:

Credit: Urban Outfitters

The Anti-Defamation League wrote a letter to CEO of Urban Outfitters explaining the uncanny similarity to Holocaust symbolism. Although UO itself hasn’t issued any sort of statement, the company that makes the shirt, Wood Wood, has. They replaced this shirt with a plain yellow one and explained that they had never intended to make a Holocaust reference:

As some of you are aware, several news sites have been writing about our “‘Kellog’ T-shirt, which features an image of a six-pointed star, allegedly similar to the yellow badge Jews were ordered to wear by the German nazis. First of all the graphic is not the Star of David, and I can assure you that this is in no way a reference to judaism, nazism or the holocaust.

While I’m obviously glad that they apologized to anyone who may have been offended and changed the shirt, I’m a bit confused as to how this happened to begin with.

Because here’s the thing–Wood Wood is a Danish company. That’s right, from Denmark. This is the same country that made an extraordinary effort to rescue its Jewish citizens from the Holocaust. Ordinary Danish citizens helped 8,000 Jews escape to Sweden after the Nazis invaded, and over 99% of Danish Jews ended up surviving.

This is particularly poignant if you think about how differently things went in many other European countries. Only 10% of Polish Jews, 12% of German Jews, and 25% of Dutch Jews survived the Holocaust.

Anyway, the point of this brief foray in Holocaust history is to show that the people of Denmark were once willing to put their own lives in danger to save their Jewish friends and neighbors. Today, meanwhile, a Danish company is apparently unaware of the symbolism in its design and mocks the Holocaust with a $100 cotton t-shirt.

I do understand that it’s completely possible–perhaps even likely–that this was completely unintentional. After all, not everyone sees a six-pointed star and immediately thinks “Star of David,” not everybody sees a yellow color and a patch on the chest and thinks “Jude.”

And that possibility brings up some difficult questions. How far should people go to avoid accidentally using Holocaust imagery and offending a ton of Jews? Are we being “too sensitive?” (And I should point out that Jews by no means agree on this. Granted, Jews never agree on anything.)

I can’t really answer those questions. However, I will say that based on UO’s history of culturally insensitive merchandise, I’m not necessarily as willing to give them the benefit of the doubt as I might be with another retailer. Come on, “Navajo Hipster Panty”? Who signed off on that?

Furthermore, it should be noted that the decision to take the six-pointed star off of the shirt was made not by UO, but by Wood Wood. UO seems intent not to learn from any of its mistakes and to continue producing merchandise that offends people, waiting until the inevitable uproar begins to remove said merchandise from the shelves. When will this stop? And, incidentally, when will UO also stop stealing indie artists’ designs, promoting anorexia, and denying collective bargaining rights to employees?

As I mentioned, this particular story does have a happy ending. The shirt is now being sold sans Holocaust-style patch, so it’s just a plain yellow shirt. Yours for only $100 at Urban Outfitters.

Liking Yourself and Being a Good Person–Is There a Connection?

Read this quote:

“I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”

If you were to take a wild guess, would you say that the person who wrote this was a productive member of society? Do you think that he or she was the type of person who helped others, who contributed meaningfully to his or her community? Was he or she a good person?

If you’re like most people (which, if you read this blog, you’re probably not, but bear with me), you’d probably answer “no” to those questions.

And you’d be dead wrong, because the author of those dismal thoughts was Abraham Lincoln.

This past weekend, my Jewish education group had its second retreat of the quarter. (I wrote about the first one here.)

One of our many discussions during the retreat was on which qualities are necessary for someone to be a good person (however one defines “good”). Some of my group’s suggestions, such as empathy, seemed completely accurate.

Some, however, did not. One student mentioned that she thinks that liking yourself is a prerequisite to being a good person, and everyone enthusiastically agreed.

I waited for her to explain. She said that you have to be fine with yourself before you can focus on being a good person to other people. She said that not liking yourself is unhealthy. (And unhealthy, by extension, must mean bad.)

I said, “What if the person you are right now just isn’t likable to you?”

She said, “Well, then you would just be bitter.”

I said, “I don’t like myself and I’m not bitter.”

She stammered, said sorry, and left the subject alone.

Here’s the thing. I would agree that genuinely liking yourself is a pretty good goal to have in terms of your own psychological development. However, I completely oppose the moralization of this quality. That is, I oppose the idea that liking yourself makes you a “good” person and that not liking yourself makes you a “bad” person. I also oppose the idea that you can’t be a “good” person unless you like yourself.

I have several reasons for opposing this concept. One is that I truly don’t believe that your opinion of yourself is strongly correlated with your treatment of others and your ability to contribute positively to society. There’s a stereotype of people who have low self-worth as selfish, miserable, and–as the girl in my group said–bitter. While it’s quite possible that not liking yourself would lead some people to be this way, it can also push people to turn outwards and do incredible things for others. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, may have been one such person.

Second, while the argument that you must like yourself in order to be a good person does not necessarily imply that liking yourself automatically makes you a good person, I think that’s something that should be examined. Once you do that, you’ll hopefully realize that there’s simply no connection. Some people who like themselves are great people. Some are horrible people. Some like themselves so much that they don’t give a crap about anyone else.

Third, there is an illness that up to a quarter of adults will experience at some point during their lives that has as one of its symptoms feeling worthless and hating yourself. That, of course, is depression. I hope I don’t have to explain why I find the suggestion that depressed people can’t be “good” people to be inaccurate, superficial, and downright offensive.

Fourth, all of this hinges on one’s personal definition of a “good person,” which was never elaborated on during our discussion. (I find that in conversations of a religious nature, these things tend to just be left undefined.) To me, a person who isn’t good is a person who has the opportunity to help others but chooses not to. A person who cannot help others due to circumstances beyond his or her control should not be labeled as “bad.” So if disliking yourself really is keeping you from helping others, that doesn’t mean you’re not a good person. It just means you have to work on your issues before you can put your goodness into action.

As I told the girl in my group, I dislike myself. There are two main reasons for that. One is that I have depression, and as I mentioned, that’s one of its symptoms. The other is that the culture I live in rejects many of my most defining traits, and it’s really, really hard to like yourself when you’re bombarded with cultural messages that tell you that you’re unlikeable.

With time, I’ll probably learn how to ignore those messages. But to suggest that I can’t be a good person right now because of them (and because of my depression) is extremely condescending. I do my best to be a good friend, daughter, sister, and leader in the Northwestern community. I have found causes that I support and advocate for them tirelessly. Because of my openness about my own experiences with mental illness, I have been able to serve as a source of information and support for many other people that I’ve met over the past few years.

Now, that’s hardly on the level of, say, Abraham Lincoln. But it’s more than a lot of other people my age do. A lot of the ones, I might add, who insist that this time of our lives is a time to “just focus on me” and “just do what I want.”

Liking yourself is great. It feels nice. But we shouldn’t confuse it with having the ability and the desire to do good.

Depressed on Shabbos

[TMI Warning]

This past weekend, I participated in an overnight retreat with a Jewish education program I’m involved in called the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship. In Jewish parlance, the trip is called a shabbaton as it takes place over the weekly holiday of Shabbat (“Shabbos” is the Ashkenazi variant of the word, in case you’re confused).

On shabbatons, the custom is generally to observe Shabbat in accordance with Jewish law. Although this is commonly interpreted as not doing any “work,” our rabbi pointed out that the actual rule is that you cannot “act” on the physical world. For observant Jews, sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday is a time when writing, using electricity, driving a car, tearing paper, cooking, exchanging money, and tons of other activities are all forbidden.

Anyway, I won’t go too far into the religious significance of Shabbat, since I’m sure you can read about that elsewhere and I’m not really the best authority on it anyway. But from the discussions we had as a group, I gathered this much about Shabbat, which I didn’t know before: it’s not only a time of rest, but of reflection. The idea is that you don’t do much of anything except be with your friends and family, eat good food, and think about how your life is going.

All of this sounds awesome in theory. Everyone could probably use some time to just think.

However, for people who struggle with depression, as I do, there is literally nothing worse than to have to spend a day doing nothing but eating, socializing, and thinking.

In fact, Shabbat is tragically full of the very things that depressives should generally try to avoid. For instance, like most Jewish holidays, it revolves around eating and drinking. The amount of food that it’s customary to consume at a Shabbat lunch or dinner could probably feed a family for a week. While this does theoretically sound awesome, overeating takes a huge toll on my mental state.

A similar issue is the compulsory socializing. Although not all depressives are introverts, many are, and the disorder sort of turns everyone into a bit of a loner. I wish I could spend hours with people and feel good about that, but I just can’t. After an hour or two, I start to sink into a funk and desperately want to escape. Unfortunately for me, Shabbat meals last for hours.

The prohibition on writing hits me hard, too, because writing is the main outlet I have for channeling my emotions in a positive way. It’s one of the few things that helps when I’m very upset. Reading is an okay substitute, but it’s just not the same.

Thinking, however, is the worst. Depressives can’t really “think,” they can only ruminate–which means endless, circular thoughts about why they’re terrible people unworthy of love. If I had to sit down for a while and think about how my life is going, I would probably become very, very miserable, and that’s exactly why I vastly prefer doing things to sitting around and thinking about them.

And indeed, on Saturday night when Shabbat was over, I didn’t feel refreshed and at ease like I was told I would feel. I didn’t feel stressed, either, but then I rarely do. Rather, I felt vaguely overwhelmed, like my mental capacity had been drained. Later that evening, I burst into tears for literally no discernible reason, and that’s not something that happens to me often anymore.

Unlike certain other religions, Judaism does not want its adherents to suffer or put their health at risk. That’s why, for instance, those who are sick or pregnant are not obligated to fast on the Jewish fast days. That’s why Jews are not only allowed, but obligated to break Shabbat in order to save a life.

However, the entire concept of mental health has only really been around for the past century, whereas the laws of Judaism were written thousands of years ago. I can no more expect Judaism to make allowances for people with clinical depression than I can expect it to, say, condone same-sex marriage.

Religion in general isn’t particularly kind to the mentally ill. When it’s not telling us that we’ve brought this upon ourselves and it’s God’s punishment, it’s telling us that we ought to be able to drag ourselves out of it on our own by praying, repenting, being good wives and husbands, or just sheer willpower. One of my favorite bloggers refers to depression as “spiritually incorrect,” capturing perfectly the way I feel about the intersection between my faith and my mental disorder.

I hope that as I learn more about Judaism, I’ll discover ways to make it work with the person that I am. That person will probably never be able to enjoy a full day of eating and being with people; I’m just not built that way. But I know that Judaism does have much to tell me about living well.

However, I doubt that I will ever be willing to observe Shabbat the “right” way. Spending one-seventh of my life without the ability to do the one thing that always makes me feel good seems like a waste. Ultimately, I don’t believe in God and I don’t believe in an afterlife, so this is the only one I’ve got.

The Happiest Day of My Life

My sister-in-law and me, on the happiest day of my life. And maybe of hers, too.

[TMI Warning]

On April 3 of this past year, my older brother got married. I’d known his wife-to-be almost as long as he had–nearly two years–and she was basically part of our family by then. So to me, that day wasn’t just about the joy of one of my family members, but two. Though, actually, it was about the joy of all of us.

I woke up early on the day of my brother’s wedding after spending the night at the hotel with my whole family. My sister-in-law, her sister, their mother, and I all had our hair and makeup done professionally. The photographer posed us with our bouquets and snapped hundreds of shots.

The wedding itself was beautiful. It was an Orthodox Jewish wedding, and everyone received a little booklet explaining the traditions and why things were done the way they were. I found it all fascinating and unforgettable.

During the ceremony, I walked my little sister, the flower girl, down the aisle. I shed some stereotypical tears. I’m pretty sure my mom did too, and we probably weren’t the only ones. A Jewish wedding ceremony isn’t something I can easily describe or explain, so all I can say is that I hope you witness one someday.

The reception was fantastic. I got to see friends and family I hadn’t seen for years, and we danced for hours. I’d worn four-inch heels and my feet were killing me, but I didn’t care, for the most part.

And then it was over, I went home and went to bed, and woke up the next morning to the same life I’d lived before.

I’ve been thinking about that day a lot ever since. Not just because it was a major event in the story of my family, but because it holds a very special significance for me. It was, so far, the happiest day of my life.

On its own, that might not seem so strange. After all, since I’ve never gotten engaged or married myself, I don’t really have a choice but to live vicariously through those who have. Since I love and care about my brother and sister-in-law, it would make sense that their marriage would make me very happy.

But at the same time, it’s not the sort of thing you’d really expect as the happiest day of a young adult’s life. Most would probably say something like their high school graduation day, the day they were accepted to their dream college, the day they won a major competition or award, and so on. Self-directed things.

It was also kind of a weird time for the happiest day of my life to occur. Last winter and spring, I was going through a major depressive episode–I’ve lost count of the number by now, but it was probably my fourth or fifth one. In fact, I spent the night before the wedding and the night after it doing the exact same thing–sobbing on my bed for no immediately discernible reason. I remember it very clearly.

But in between those two nights, something was different. I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I wasn’t thinking about what a failure I am or how I have no friends or how I’m terrible at everything I ever try to do, or any of that other stuff that seemed so obvious to me.

And it wasn’t because I was “thinking happy thoughts” or “just ignoring it” or any of the other things depressives are constantly extolled to do.

It was because all of my attention was focused on someone else and on their happiness. Rather than trying to avoid my own thoughts, I actively directed them somewhere else.

In other words, the happiest day of my life was the day I almost didn’t think about myself at all.

I knew almost the instant the night was over that it had been a very special day for me. For months afterwards I kept replaying it in my mind, desperately trying to figure out how to get that feeling back. My parents told me later that their friends couldn’t stop telling them how amazing I looked–not just because I was dressed and coiffed and made up so well, but because I seemed to glow. I seemed alive, and it might’ve been the only time these people had ever seen me that way. It might’ve been the only time I ever have looked that way. I looked like a young person ought to look.

It was only tonight that I finally figured it out. And it made perfect sense. Because the truth is, I’m never going to love myself. I might not ever even like myself. I’ll probably always wish I were born another person. So for me, happiness will never come by focusing on myself and my own life. It will only ever come during those times when I can forget my own existence, my own self.

To be honest, I’m not sure that I’ll ever have a day as happy as that one again, except perhaps when my other siblings or close friends get married. I’m not sure that I’ll ever find someone who tolerates me enough to marry me, and even if I do, I doubt my own wedding day could make me as happy as someone else’s.

On a normal day, it’s just not possible to pretend that the world doesn’t exist. It exists, and it sucks a lot of the time. On normal days my family isn’t going through one of the happiest things that can happen to a person. On normal days, I don’t have anything this momentously joyous to think about.

But I think I can apply what I’ve learned to these normal days, too. That’s why the best advice I can offer to other people struggling with mood disorders is to “get out of your head.” The hard part is figuring out how to do that–it’s different for everyone–and summoning the strength to actually do it. For me, getting out of my head means getting into someone else’s and living through their eyes instead.

That day changed my life in many ways. It inspired me to learn more about the religious traditions I’ve thus far ignored, it obviously changed my family life pretty drastically, and, for about fourteen hours, it let me live without depression.

For those fourteen hours, I was alive. The black cloud over me was gone. The haze before  my eyes was gone.

I’ll never forget how that felt.

Why I Chose Humanistic Judaism

[This is cross-posted from the Interfaith at Northwestern blog, which I was asked to contribute a post for. :)]

When I was a kid, I was absolutely convinced that God exists. I prayed all the time, in fact. Sometimes it was for the silly sorts of stuff that kids worry about; sometimes it was for things like having my parents come home safe and sound from a trip.

My parents come from the former Soviet Union, where religious expression of any kind was strongly discouraged. As a result, they were never religious or observant at all, so they were pretty surprised that I was. I encouraged them to light Shabbat candles and take me to the synagogue on Friday nights, and they bought me a children’s Bible and an encyclopedia about Judaism.

As a teenager, I began questioning things much more. I loved science and therefore had a lot of trouble taking the Bible at its word, but I was still open to the idea of being Jewish in a traditional way. The summer after my junior year of high school, however, everything changed.

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