They tell writers to “write about what you know” – except not too much. If you go too far, you run the risk of becoming just another confessional blog post pining for attention better provided by a mental health professional. “Write about what you know” – but only if the world you know is riveting, and one that people care to see. “Write about what you know” – but first, figure out what you know for certain.
I am writing my senior thesis in Sociology and Jewish Studies, examining observant Jewish women’s evolving identities through the lens of their relationships with their mothers, through firsthand interviews. I have very few friends who aren’t eligible for my study – intelligent, thoughtful, Jewishly -involved women who love talking about their identities. This is the kind of academia I “get off on,” that excites and energizes me in a way that feels important. But in the scheme of things, my findings aren’t important at all; no one’s life will be saved, or even change based on my observations, no matter how scholarly or eloquently expressed. I am not discovering a new neurological breakthrough, or making novel geopolitical statements. I am, basically, talking about myself. I am, essentially, getting a degree in navel-gazing.
I spent the last week at a pluralistic Jewish think-tank, discussing Israel and Jewish identity. More accurately, we discussed discussing Israel and Jewish identity. It’s so silly. It’s everything I love and cannot justify. I’m inclined to defend these conversations, these hours spent grappling with biblical and modern Jewish texts about values – balancing self-preservation and compromise, considering deeply the dangers of nationalism, debating the bounds of pluralism in Hillel; I try to believe these learning sessions are important for the world and not just for my own cognitive masturbation. But still.
When I try to write my semimonthly posts here on Hevria, I am often inspired, if only in a half-baked way, by small moments in my life – a mundane moment at a bus stop, the time a stranger paid for my Slurpee – but I stop short because what’s the point? And don’t try to tell me that my musings somehow speak to larger universal truths, or heal any aspect of the world. I am not being self-effacing; I just think people would genuinely fare just as well without knowing about how much I love extra foam in my cappuccino.
My creative writing professor pushes us to “write from the I,” digging beneath the tendency to write “one might wonder…” or “we often believe…” This guidance challenges me to sharpen my own thinking, once I have to take ownership of my own statements. She teaches us to reject the generic third-person stance we have swallowed obediently in pursuit of academic piety; after all, the professor explains, what’s the point of encouraging us to think critically and explore all there is to learn if we cannot enter the Conversation? What’s it all about if showing up as ourselves is not enough, if our voices lack credence without the patriarchal stamp of approval from the Academy?
Jews love to talk about being Jewish, to neurotically nitpick and pick our scabs, and name our naggings. We talk about talking. In distancing ourselves from the discourse, we are more distinctly Jew-y than ever. It seems self-indulgent, even cruel, to read and write and share endless think-pieces about the latest Jewish Problem and How to Solve It. Are we all talk? Are we going anywhere? I am part of the problem.
Elad wrote about this discomfort with personal writing, with the seemingly selfish nature of confessional essays and the like. He wrote about the difference between self-righteous and sacrificial, the fine line between clickbait and vulnerability. I try to keep my own navel-gazing in check; I do not know where I stand.
For your information, I am at my favorite cafe in Jerusalem, savoring the last bits of foam in my hafuch-gadol-im-soya (large cappuccino with soy milk) and trying to rub the tension out of my shins from trekking this hilly, holy home. I will not solve anything, and you might neither. You may have spent five minutes reading my thoughts, only to crave another cup of coffee, and maybe some change. I am part of the problem. But I’d like to believe all this talk is worth something. Let’s keep talking, even if we don’t radically change the world. Let’s keep talking until we find a reason. Let’s stop seeking a reason, and keep on rambling.
P.S. – Shoutout to the lovely, 21 year-old SLB for lending me her computer for the sake of creative self-expression xoxo.