July 12, 2008

Shalom Auslander: Foreskin’s Lament

Posted in Auslander Shalom at 8:00 am by John Self

Shalom Auslander came recommended to me for his first book, a collection of stories called Beware of God, but it wasn’t until I was amused by a column he wrote for the Guardian newspaper that I realised I would like to read a book by him. Fortunately, he published a memoir earlier this year, which goes by the unmistakable title of Foreskin’s Lament. Is there something he’s trying to get off his chest here?

Foreskin\'s Lament

As we might have guessed from his name and the titles, Auslander’s subject is Judaism, or, I suppose, Jewishness. The source of the book is neatly summed up in the first line of the About the Author blurb: “Shalom Auslander was raised as an Orthodox Jew in Spring Valley, New York.” And he’s been living with the consequences ever since.

The people who raised me will say that I’m not religious. They are mistaken. What I am not is observant. But I am painfully, incurably, cripplingly, miserably religious, and I have watched lately, dumbfounded and distraught, as around the world, more and more people seem to be finding Gods, each one more hateful and bloodthirsty than the next, as I’m doing my best to lose him. I’m failing miserably.

I believe in God.

It’s been a real problem for me.

The book is apparently written over a period when Auslander’s wife is pregnant with their first child, and Auslander is writing stories (which will presumably become Beware of God). His need to purge himself of the faith in which he was raised, and his simultaneous inability to stop believing, form the conflict which defines the book, and the author.

A few days ago, I resumed work on my God stories. I’m pushing my luck, I know, but if this child somehow lives, I want him or her to know where I come from, why I haven’t taught him or her what they taught me, why I have, as my mother put it in one of her last ever emails to me, forsaken my people. I know that God knows what I’ve written so far, and I know that He knows that He’s coming off like an asshole – He also knows that it’s only going to get worse before I am done, and He’s doing everything He can to stop me from finishing. Killing me? Too obvious. Murdering the very child for whom I’m writing the book? That would be so God.

The problem with all this is that it’s difficult to credit that Auslander really does have the unshakable (however hard he tries) belief he claims to: if he does, then he hasn’t conveyed it convincingly to the standard-issue postreligious reader. And it becomes clear that there’s not much more to the book than this constant double-hander of Auslander as God-fearer versus Auslander as God-baiter.

That’s not quite true: there’s a fairly upsetting portrayal of an out-of-control father (who may have had his son’s blasphemous urges but sublimated them all his life) and the book becomes moving toward the end, as Auslander struggles over whether or not to give his newborn son the traditional Jewish snip which gives the book its title. And even when his anti-God arguments are simplistic (along the lines of Why do bad things happen to good people?), he has a pithy way of putting it.

Speaking of his sexual desires, the poet Max Jacob wrote, —Heaven will pardon me for the pleasures which it knows are involuntary. A few years later, Heaven killed Max in a German concentration camp.

Still, despite these qualities, Foreskin’s Lament seems over-long – it could easily have lost a third of its 300 pages – and had that rare quality (technically known as Michael Moore’s Syndrome) of vaguely irritating me even though I was pretty much in agreement with its author. It does, however, have the funniest acknowledgements page I’ve ever seen. It’s headed Whom to Kill.

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13 Comments »

  1. Mrinal Bose said,

    John, I appreciate your evaluation. Shalom Auslander is a brlliant writer, but he’s much too obsessed with his God thing. It’s kind of fixation and he seems to wallow in it. It really sucks. He reads better as a columnist than a book author.

  2. jem said,

    I’ve had this on a wishlist for a while but now I’m questioning that. Perhaps it’ll move to the ‘if found really cheap somewhere when there’s space on my shelves’ list!

    I know exactly what you mean about that annoyance / agreement line. I think I’m walking the same one in my current book (‘The Feast of Love’ by Charles Baxter – something about the overall tone really grates on me).

  3. Sarah said,

    I haven’t read this yet but I did really enjoy the bitingly good Beware of God when I read it a few years ago. Don’t give up on Auslander before trying this!

  4. Isabel said,

    It’s a shame that he spends to much time thinking about what he needs to teach his child. What does his wife think? It’s usually the wife who rules in the religious area.

  5. Don Emmerich said,

    I had the same reaction. I thought the first fifty pages or so were hilarious. But then it was as though the story hit a loop and he kept regurgitating the same old “I hate God”/“I fear God’s going to punish me” tirades. He’s a very funny writer (no doubt about that), but from what I read (I couldn’t finish the book) he never balanced his humor with a believable account of himself or those around him: kind of like a Philip Roth novel without any of the depth or beauty.

    By the way, I stumbled onto your site a few months ago; can’t even remember how I got here. And I absolutely love it. You’re one of the only people I’ve found on the internet who seems to genuinely love books.

  6. chartroose said,

    Thanks, John, it sounds overlong and kind of dull. Plus, how much God can one Athiest (me) endure? I’m going to remove it from my TBR list.

  7. Suzy said,

    I’ve had enough of reading memoirs. I always end up wondering what the other characters, the fathers, the mothers, the siblings, the cruel betraying lovers etc etc etc have to say. They’re just mute. And I don’t believe the memoirist all the time. Call me cynical. But things are all about sympathy for the sufferer. Meh. No more memoirs for me.

  8. John Self said,

    Well, I didn’t mean to dissuade anyone from reading it who was intending to! As Sarah suggests, Auslander is definitely worth reading, and I will try Beware of God, but I do think there are sections in Foreskin’s Lament which can be validly skipped. (And should have been by Auslander himself.)

    He reads better as a columnist than a book author.

    Dammit, Mrinal, you took the words out of my mouth! I actually intended to say this in my post but was kind of rushed when writing it and clean forgot!

    kind of like a Philip Roth novel without any of the depth or beauty.

    Agree 100% Don, and Roth kept coming to mind during the longueurs in Foreskin’s Lament (usually in the form of “I wish I was reading Philip Roth instead of this”). Thanks for the kind comments too.

  9. Stewart said,

    I do think there are sections in Foreskin’s Lament which can be validly skipped.

    I think le mot juste is snipped.

  10. Tim Daniels said,

    The title is also shared with a New Zealand play written by Gree Mcgee in 1981. I am not sure if there is an obvious connection, is the title a quote?

  11. John Self said,

    No idea Tim, but thanks for the alert. (The apostrophe played havoc with your link, by the way, so I had to edit your comment to incorporate it into the text.)

  12. SSYA said,

    I can understand why people might feel that Auslander is obsessive on the god issue. However, I doubt that any of the above commenters grew up the way that Auslander did. I had the misfortune of being raised in the same religious situation that he did. No better words than “all-encompassing” can describe the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. There is no escaping it and 300 pages worth of description doesn’t even scratch the surface. What may be hard for some to understand is that there IS NO autobiography without the extensive god issues. The intensity is difficult to grasp unless its been experienced first hand.

  13. John Self said,

    Thanks for your comment, SSYA, and I take your point. My feeling was just that the longer the book – and Auslander’s complaints – grew, the less effective it became, because he seemed to be repeating himself. It’s good to know that he strikes a chord with people in the same situation as him, but the measure of the book’s value should also lie, surely, in its ability to convey the situation to those who didn’t experience it first hand. Yes it was effective, and I did enjoy it very much in places, but for me, less would have been more.


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