July 12, 2008
Shalom Auslander: Foreskin’s Lament
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?
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.