Borderline Jewish

Borderline Jewish

Because I grew up Jewish in Alabama, people tend to assume that the worst experiences I’ve ever had are due to anti-Semitism that is pervasive in many parts of the southern United States. While it’s true that I’ve had some pretty terrible experiences with anti-Semitism growing up (you know, the run-of-the-mill accusations that I killed Jesus and am going to hell), those haven’t been my worst experiences of marginalization by any means.

In fact, some of my worst experiences of marginalization have been within the Jewish community itself.

In the summer of 2015, immediately after graduating college, I moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles to attend a Reform Jewish seminary to pursue my master’s in Jewish nonprofit management. I was 20 years old, new to a big city, very autistic (though I didn’t have the words to describe it quite yet - I instead used more hateful words to describe myself like “socially inept,” “awkward,” and “embarrassing”), and terrified. On top of that, I had just been involuntarily committed the night before my college graduation, reinforcing my feelings of shame and self-hate. I desperately wanted to fit in with my classmates.

The summer semester kicked off with a three-day overnight orientation at a Jewish campground. Each day was filled with outdoors and athletic “bonding” activities including nature hikes, a ropes course, and sports. As someone who is, well, not the most able-bodied person in the world and deeply lacks coordination (did I mention I am very autistic?), I was already on edge.

At night, students got to know each other by playing “icebreakers.” These were not typical icebreakers - they were more like fraternity party drinking games. In one game of “Never Have I Ever,” a fellow student recounted his experience of getting a blow job during the movie Pirates of the Caribbean 3; in another game, students had to make “orgasmic sounds” if they drew a particular number. While I generally consider myself to be sex positive, I felt rather uncomfortable with these activities as I was in a more or less professional setting and I had only just met my new classmates. Furthermore, I had just been through an act of sexual violence during my involuntary commitment and felt that the whole experience was somewhat triggering. What is wrong with me? I remember thinking. Why can’t I just be normal and fit in?

My feelings of alienation from my classmates did not subside when classes started. While I had chosen to pursue my degree in hopes that I could carry out the social justice values of Judaism in my professional life through working for a Jewish civil rights focused organization like the Anti-Defamation League or the National Council of Jewish Women, the vast majority of my classmates were concerned with issues of Jewish survival and continuity. Their goal was to preserve Jewish involvement and cultural identity in an age of secularism through initiatives targeted toward helping Jewish youth meet other Jewish youth, such as Jewish summer camp, travel experiences, and social programming.

I began to raise questions about those goals early on. I myself had been a part of Jewish youth groups and attended Jewish summer camp growing up, and I had always felt that the primary focus had been encouraging Jewish youth to surround themselves with, and eventually date, other Jews (as Sarah Seltzer has written about here). I did not feel that Jewish values such as social justice, kindness, and empathy had been taught through these initiatives - or if they were, they were only secondary to maintaining group cohesion. Unfortunately, I felt that my views were not taken seriously by any of my classmates or professors.

“What is the point of preserving Jewish continuity if we aren’t teaching Jewish values?” I remember asking one day. “What is the point of us surviving as a group if we aren’t embodying kindness, respect, and social justice?”

A few of my classmates laughed. “People can learn kindness and respect just about anywhere,” one of them said. “What keeps us unique and separate as a group is being born Jewish.”

After class, he approached me. “I get it,” he said. “You’re an idealistic 20-year-old. You have your vision about how you’re going to change the world and bring about social justice. I was 20 years old once too. But at some point you’re going to realize that you have to focus on what’s realistic. And what’s realistic is that if we don’t find a way to engage Jewish youth, we’re going to die off. Just wait, you’ll see.”

I differed with my classmates in other areas as well. I quickly discovered that my classmates were passionate and eager to learn about fundraising and donor relations. During site visits to local Jewish nonprofits, professors instructed us to take note of the names on the walls; they would be important people to network with and could one day become our funders. My classmates enthusiastically wrote donors’ names down, marveling at the expansiveness and grandeur of each building we visited. I, on the other hand, was intensely critical of the donor-driven charity model of the nonprofit sector. The idea that I should spend precious time networking with and getting to know donors, rather than clients - those who the nonprofit was actually serving - was of utmost concern.

In one class discussion, my professor posed the question, “Who do you think owns a nonprofit? Who has final say over all the decisions?”

I boldly raised my hand. “The clients,” I exclaimed. “If clients don’t want to utilize your services, you’re not going to be a very good nonprofit.”

The entire classroom erupted in laughter. “She is so idealistic,” whispered one of my classmates to another.

I got up from my chair and ran to the bathroom. I sat on the floor of one of the stalls and began to sob. What was I doing? Why was I here? Why couldn’t I fit in? I wished, more than anything, that someone would at least take my views seriously and try to find out more. Even if no one agreed with me, I would have been satisfied if someone had been willing to engage in a conversation with me rather than flat out dismiss me as a 20-year-old or laugh me out of the classroom. But it was completely and utterly clear to me that my ideas seemed so ridiculous and pitiful that I was not even worthy of conversing with.

On top of all of this, my classmates exchanged stories of sexual escapades and traded sexual innuendos during almost all carpool rides to site visits and extracurricular social outings. When I eventually spoke up and told my classmates that this made me uncomfortable (and disclosed some very personal details about a sexual assault I experienced), it did not stop.

I began to act out in some pretty drastic ways. I started to abuse my Xanax prescription, taking a higher dose than prescribed and combining it with my prescribed Gabapentin.

“I just want to feel numb,” I told my psychiatrist during one session. “I just need to feel numb enough to get through school each day without feeling the pain of how excluded and isolated I was.” She increased my dose of Gabapentin and Zoloft. I began to feel number. Surprisingly, the numbness was not helpful; I felt just as miserable inside but was no longer able to cry about it or even care much.

The increased Gabapentin also made me looser. I gradually lost my filter. “I don’t know why I’m still in this program,” I told a school administrator. “I honestly just want to start making money. Maybe I’ll get a boob job. Maybe if I had a boob job I’d at least be taken seriously.”

(I was 20.)

(Okay, who am I kidding? I still think I’d be taken more seriously if I had bigger boobs.)

I felt so depressed, numb, apathetic, and isolated that I couldn’t sleep at night. I began to fall asleep in class. One time, on a site visit, I was so tired that I fell asleep on a couch at Jewish Family Services; another time, I loaded up on Gabapentin and passed out in the middle of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Both of these events got me a stern talking to; didn’t I know how unprofessional this looked? “I hope you’re talking to your therapist about this,” I was told.

I was getting tired of it all. More and more, I just wanted to die. I guess this is life after college, I thought to myself. Lonely, painful, depressing, and hopeless. I will always be unlikeable and devalued.

It’s not like I could talk to anyone about it. Who was I going to tell? My therapist or psychiatrist, so that I could get locked up again? My at the time boyfriend, who had participated in getting me locked up in the first place? My parents, who had pushed me to get this degree in addition to my master’s in social work so that I wouldn’t be “just a social worker”?

I couldn’t believe it. I was a student at seminary - a religious institution - a place where people are supposed to learn morals, ethics, compassion - and I could honestly say that I didn’t feel that I knew of a single person who genuinely cared about my happiness or well-being, independent of my productivity or behavior as a student.

On July 28, 2015, at the end of the summer semester, I drank three shots of vodka and swallowed three milligrams of Xanax. I hazily remember thinking, “Why not just do it now? Why not just die tonight?” I don’t remember much after aside from clumsily searching for a pharmacy near me. The next day, I woke up in the emergency room and was involuntarily committed once again.

A few weeks later, I was placed on a mental health leave of absence. I remember the soul-crushing speechlessness I felt upon receiving the news; not only had I had to endure another involuntary commitment, but now I was being further punished for my actions. My educational goals were being ripped away from me; my identity as a student - as anything other than a mentally ill person - was shattered.

“This is for your own good,” the administrators said. So did my family and boyfriend at the time. I told my best friend that I wish I had blown my brains out instead of taken pills.

“I don’t get why you are so upset,” my boyfriend said. “This is what you need. You need time to get better. Don’t you want to get better?” (My boyfriend had, by the way, that same summer, spent $5,000 on some cleansing ceremonies from a psychic to remove a demon that had supposedly possessed him. Yet of course, he was “young and stupid” and I was the borderline who needed to get better.)

My parents looked into residential programs for me. “You’re clearly very suicidal and need a lot of help,” said my dad. “I’ve heard it takes 45 days to really learn how to change your behavior. I’m going to try to find a good 45-day program for you.”

Luckily, I fought against the idea of going to a residential program, and won. But I still felt utterly devastated. It was a long, long time before I began to feel any better. It was a long time until I learned to accept my Mad identity and view my behavior as anything other than symptoms of “mental illness.”

***

I get it. I know that from the outside, my behavior looked “crazy.” For lack of a better way to put it, I became a total borderline. I abused substances, acted recklessly, talked unprofessionally, and generally channeled my pain into some pretty disruptive actions. I am not writing this article to absolve myself of any responsibility. I know that there are much more mature, professional ways that I could have handled the situation, and I am doing my best to learn from my mistakes.

At the same time, though, I really do believe that so many of the behaviors we think of as “crazy” or “mentally ill” are the result of deep pain that a person is feeling due to whatever is happening in their lives. The way I was acting was the result of feeling utterly devalued and dismissed by almost everyone around me.

In all of my time in seminary, no one stopped to ask why I was acting out. No administrator, professor, or classmate stopped to ask if there was anything they could do to improve my experience or make things any better. Although some professors and students did ask whether I was seeking therapy or practicing good “self-care,” no one stopped to really listen to me and empathize with the pain I felt.

***

I fell in love with Judaism in the first place due to the Torah’s instruction to “not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 23). I loved the simplicity and clarity of this commandment. It was a perfect guide to something I truly believed in: providing support and care to others, not from a place of pity or charity, but from a place of empathy and solidarity. In one of my papers for theology class, I wrote, “The Torah is saying that it is important for Jewish people to place themselves in others’ shoes, to truly feel what others are feeling. Since we were slaves in Egypt, we understand what it is like to feel marginalized, enslaved, or abused; when anyone else is experiencing this hardship, we should quite literally feel their pain by remembering ours. Selfishness is usually considered to be negative. However, in this specific situation, selfishness can be extremely positive. If we as Jews feel the pain of others who are suffering, then helping those who are suffering will be equivalent to helping ourselves. By reducing others’ suffering, we reduce our own suffering--we no longer suffer on their behalf.”

During my involuntary commitment, I had seen the dangers of providing “help” or “care” from a place of pity and paternalism - from a place of moral superiority, a place of assuming that another person does not know what is best for themselves. This verse from Exodus has always struck me as the complete opposite of that. It has struck me as a description, in some ways, of mutual, non-hierarchical support.

This verse is often considered to be the backbone of all of Judaism. In a famous story in the Talmud, a young man asked Rabbi Hillel to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Rabbi Hillel lifted one of his feet into the air and said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary.” While this is slightly different than the verse in Exodus 23, it reflects a similar idea - not to act in the way that you think is best for another person or to give them charity out of pity and moral superiority, but to give people the level of respect and kindness that you yourself believe you deserve.

I was beyond disillusioned when I saw that this value was not at all practiced at seminary. If you asked any of my classmates, I bet they would say that if they were acting out, they would want to at least be asked why, and if they had some controversial or ridiculous-sounding views, they would want to at least be taken seriously. And yet they could not show me the same respect. I was beneath them - a Mad person, a borderline, an other.

One of my favorite things about that passage in Exodus is the way lived experience of “strangerness” is framed as something of value - as a form of expertise. The Jewish people’s experience of being strangers in Egypt gives them knowledge - we know how it feels to be strangers and can therefore stand in solidarity with other strangers. The experience of madness is indubitably tied to the experience of strangerness, as well. You would think that this would, therefore, be valued within the Jewish community. But I, a Mad woman, was completely dismissed and eventually forced out of seminary.

***

During the high holiday season, and as I return to graduate school for the second time (this time a secular one), I find myself asking over and over: how do I be a Jewish Mad person?

Being Mad is central to my identity. It is amongst fellow Mad people that I have found acceptance and solidarity, kindness and respect. It is amongst fellow Mad people that I have stopped thinking of myself as socially inept or embarrassing and started to own and accept myself as different and disabled. It is amongst fellow Mad people that I have stopped loathing every inch of my body and mind for being “borderline” and started to realize that maybe, in some circumstances, being a borderline is a perfectly justifiable rebellion against oppression and devaluation. It is amongst fellow Mad people where I have been able to look to others and say, “He is Mad like me. She is Mad like me. They are Mad like me. And I really respect him. I’ve learned a lot from her. They are one of my most trusted comrades. If I am like these individuals, then I must not be so bad. In fact, I’m proud to be like these individuals!” I really could not be more proud to be Mad.

But being Jewish feels different. In many ways, my Jewishness feels like an appendage, a bag that I am forced to lug around. “I am a person with Jewishness,” I sometimes want to say. “I am a person with lived experience of Jewishness.” I would like to insert as many words as possible between me and the annoying, overwhelming, disappointing thing that is my Jewishness. To distance myself. I am not so proud to be Jewish.

And yet, there are so many Jewish Mad people who I am proud to be connected to. I would be lying if I said my heart didn’t swell with pride when I first found out that Judi Chamberlin was Jewish. Did you know Bonnie Burstow is Jewish too? And Kaz DeWolfe, who co-founded Radical Abolitionist.

Recently, I was invited to join a disability studies anti-Zionist reading group with two other Jewish Mad researchers. The group has been discussing Jasbir Puar’s new book Right to Maim, which critiques both the Palestinian Occupation and Israeli pronatalist policies, which prioritize continuity over values or social justice. It is in this context that I have found like-minded people who share similar critiques of a survival focus.

Through this group and the aforementioned individuals, I have begun to feel proud of myself as Jewish - but only in the context of madness and disability. Is there a space for Mad and disabled Jewishness? Is there a space to feel proud of one’s specifically Mad and disabled Jewish identity?

A modern Jewish legend I have always loved is that of the Trefa Banquet. During the first ordination ceremony of Reform rabbis, a caterer made a mistake and ordered shellfish for the big meal. Although this was completely unintentional, the president of the Reform seminary refused to apologize for it. He instead used it as an opportunity to critique the tradition of keeping kosher, arguing that kosher dietary laws were no longer relevant. This established the idea of what Wilensky called “transgression as religion,” i.e. rebelling against Jewish law as part of practicing Judaism. Perhaps this also started a tradition of constructing meaning for our mistakes, and retroactively exploring how our mistakes and transgressions might serve an important purpose.

Perhaps being forced out of seminary - out of a traditional Jewish institution and a traditional pathway to leadership in the Jewish community - can help serve a broader purpose. Can it help further another rebellion against Judaism - a rebellion led by Jewish Mad people? Can it help create space for Mad people within the Jewish community, and create space for Jewish people within the Mad community? What could a specifically Jewish Mad or Mad Jewish space and culture look like?

It is my hope that these questions can continue to be reflected on in the future. For now, wishing all my fellow Mad Jewish people and Jewish Mad people a happy new year.

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