October 18, 2007
An Orthodox ‘cast-off’ holds God accountable
"Foreskin's Lament: A Memoir" by Shalom Auslander (Riverhead, $24.95).Dressed in black, Shalom Auslander wears three tiny silver blocks on a chain that falls close to his neck, with Hebrew letters spelling out the word "Acher," or other. This was a gift from his wife when he completed his memoir, "Foreskin's Lament." Acher was the name given to Elisha ben Abuya, a learned second-century rabbi, after he adopted heretical opinions. Auslander says he smiles whenever he looks in the mirror and sees the chain.
Both humor and anger run deep in this memoir, two excerpts of which have appeared in The New Yorker. The author of the story collection, "Beware of God," Auslander, 37, grew up in the ultra-Orthodox world of upstate Monsey, N.Y., from which he is now estranged.
"I'm completely religious," he said, in an interview in New York City.
While he no longer observes the laws of Judaism, he's rarely without the fear of God, or negotiating with God, on his mind: "If I could get rid of it, I'd be thrilled. I would love to have that atheistic sensibility that's flying around now, to get some rest."
The memoir is framed as the story of Auslander's son, from learning of the pregnancy to deciding whether to circumcise him to the child's first birthday. Auslander first describes the terror of God that he grew up with, and then skips ahead to his wife's doctor's visits and his unrelenting fear that his wife will miscarry, or will die during childbirth, or that they'll all die on the way back from the hospital.
"That would be so God," he writes.
He talks about God without a trace of reverence. His God is a personal God: vengeful, brutal and tormenting. While Auslander believes in God, he's not entirely comfortable with the word 'believer,' which suggests that God is an answer.
"I'd like to hold God accountable," he said. "I'm all for a bit of revolution. As a parent you start to realize that you're trying to create a person who moves away from you to become himself. Maybe that's what God is waiting for, for us to reach adolescence, to say it can't be right, to come to a new understanding. The way it is now reeks of ancient stupidity."
For an article about him in The New York Times, Auslander took a reporter on a driving tour through Monsey, and he said that he didn't realize they had made plans for the second day of Rosh Hashanah. But he was aware that it was Sukkot on the day we met. His wife, Orli, the more traditional of the pair, likes to hang branches with birds and leaves in front of their Woodstock home, and their 3-year old son Paix (rhymes with Max, and means peace, as his own first name does, but "without the God part") calls it "thukkah."
"Woodstock is a town of foreskins," he said, using his term for people like himself who are cut off and cast out. "The place is filled with people who come from elsewhere, looking for something new. I found it in the solitude."
There's a Reconstructionist synagogue in town, but Auslander stays away. When he once attended services, he recognized that some people found comfort in the guitar-playing rabbi's presence. But he couldn't get the voices of his rebbes out of his head, dismissing the place as watered-down Judaism, or worse.
In the narrative, his own account of growing up is the back story to his son's. He described attending the Yeshiva of Spring Valley with its competitive blessing bees. When the father of a classmate died, the teacher advised the students to pray to God for forgiveness so that He wouldn't decide to kill their fathers, too.
Auslander then thought he could make everything in his unhappy home better: by pleasing his mother by winning the blessing bee and sinning so much that "Hashem would have to kill my father."
His father was an alcoholic, violent with his two sons. His mother was a sad character, trying to keep up appearances of a normal home life. Incessantly reading decorating magazines, she harbored the hope that if she rearranged their furniture well, they would have a peaceful home.
The reader learns that Auslander's mother is the sister of Rabbis Maurice and Norman Lamm, one a best-selling author and the other the chancellor and former president of Yeshiva University. While growing up, she had wanted to be a doctor, but her father used the money saved for her tuition to pay for her brother's rabbinical education. Soon after she married, her husband's father died, leaving his fortune, thought to be millions, entirely to charity. Early in their marriage, Shalom's parents lost a baby son.
As a young boy, Auslander began sneaking out of the house on Shabbat afternoon; a first transgression was to ride his bike to a local store, but then he couldn't get himself to step on the electronic pad to open the door, which would have been another transgression. But soon after, he was taking taxis to the mall, shoplifting small items and sneaking non-kosher foods. By the time he was in high school, the Manhattan Talmudic Academy, he was shoplifting the kinds of expensive clothing his classmates wore, smoking dope and skipping classes to go to museums, bookstores and porn shops.
When he was caught with more than $500 of stolen clothing and some marijuana in his pocket at Macy's, he was sentenced to community service and a heavy fine. He worked at a local hospital, doing filing on Sundays, until he learned that he could also fulfill his service at a religious institution. He then went off to study at a yeshiva in Israel, pasting a poster of a bikini-clad Cindy Crawford above his bed.
Most of the rebbes there had stories of their own -- they had been on drugs or in street gangs and then found God. While their tales were meant to be inspiring, for Auslander they were cautionary. He mostly skipped class and prayer services, and occasionally showed up stoned. But even he experienced the phenomenon of return. After accepting invitations to a rebbe's home, he felt loved and accepted -- as he had never felt before -- as long as he agreed to live as they did. He returned to New York still wearing his black hat, and while studying in a Queens yeshiva, worked nights as a shomer, watcher, in a funeral home. Not the most traditional of watchers, he'd get high and fall asleep on the gurney. Six months after he was introduced to his London-born wife, who had been through her own traumas, they married and moved to the East Village, shifting further from religion and their families. Auslander didn't go to college and took a job as an advertising copywriter. Later, he began writing journalism, including articles for Esquire. He found the personal voice that he now uses a few years later, when writing a letter to his mother about halting communication: "I cried as I read the letter to my wife. Then I thought, this is wrong -- this is sad for my mother, but freedom for me. I rewrote the letter funny -- as funny as a don't-call-me-ever-again letter could be. That was the first time I wrote something for myself.
"I laughed and kept writing," he said, adding, "You can choose. There's you and a hundred other voices in your head. It's about not letting yourself live in someone else's movie."
He agreed that the best humor comes from anger.
"That's the stuff that makes me laugh, starting with Aristophanes, Beckett, Heller, Vonnegut," he said. "They're pissed off and funny about it."
"I'm a bit of a screwball pitcher, I can't throw a fastball up the center," he says of his humor, which often comes from his juxtapositions. "When you're not expecting a light to be shined on an object in that way," he said, "it brings the thing into relief -- it makes me laugh."
Does he worry about writing things that will upset his family?
"My basic feeling is that I'm entitled to my story and I'm entitled to talk about it," he said.
He's no longer in touch with any of his family members, including his well-known uncles. He last saw his parents when his son was born. For his son's first birthday, the inscription on the cake read, "Happy Birthday, Paix. From Mommy, Daddy, Harley, Duke [their dogs], and no one else in our families because they are bitter miseries who'd rather drag us into the morass of their bleak, tragic lives that share for a moment in our joy. And many more."
"Writing is cathartic, not curative," he said. When he began therapy, he told his doctor that "I didn't want him to take away whatever it was that made me write. Writing was the only thing that made me feel good. He knew that was anger and would never take it away. It would be like declawing a cat, taking away its defense. It has been dissipated through a loving marriage and son."
"I'm not blowing buildings up," he said. "I'm not suing anyone. I'm not trying to shut down the Yeshiva of Spring Valley. It's a good kind of anger. It's just my way of living."
Does he pray?
"I hope someone isn't killing my wife when I'm talking to you," he said. "Is that prayer? Nowhere does it say that Abraham or Moses davened. They spoke to God, beseeched him. For me, prayer is talk. I talk to God. I'm unhappy with Him."