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November 3, 2005

Beware of Formerly Observant Writers

http://www.jewishjournal.com/arts/article/beware_of_formerly_observant_writers_20051104

"Beware of God" by Shalom Auslander (Simon & Schuster, $19.95)

God is a chicken.

God is a stalker.

God is a tougher advertising client than Proctor & Gamble.

God is just the bureaucrat of the "production nightmare" that is all of creation. And God just hates all the "micromanaging bull----."

In Shalom Auslander's recent collection of short stories, "Beware of God," God appears as many, many things, except for the Almighty, All-Knowing, Omniscient powerful Being He has traditionally been for the last however many-thousand years (depending on which religion you ask).

Like other novelists who have been raised in the Modern Orthodox world -- Nathan Englander, most recently -- Auslander takes his yeshiva upbringing, his knowledge of Jewish history and familiarity with the back and forth dialectic of Talmudic argument and turns it all on its head.

It's all a big joke to you, Auslander," one can picture his rebbes telling him in high school.

And it is a big joke, for the most part. Like some of Woody Allen's shorts, Auslander manages to take what he knows, combine it with what the world knows, and turn it into an absurdist commentary on Orthodoxy -- and on piety itself.

In "The Metamorphosis," the character Motty awakes one morning "to find himself transformed into a very large goy." Instead of bug eyes and wings, as in Kafka's original tale of species transformation, this protagonist has to deal suddenly with a hairy chest and muscled biceps. And he's "overcome with desire to build something with hammers and wood."

That's the danger of a Modern Orthodox education -- one that's equally strident in Judaic and English studies. In a modern religious life, which reaches for footing in both the secular and religious worlds, sometimes the balance and the tension cannot hold. (Which might explain why the Modern Orthodox world has moved further to the right since Auslander went to school in the '70s and '80s.) Auslander, like Englander, is a rabbi's worst nightmare: Like the Wicked Son of Passover, he has all the knowledge and not much of the belief.

In "Prophet's Dilemma," God is just like a stalker. He tells Schwartzman to build an ark. But Schwartzman has already built a temple in his backyard, (with the help of the Home Depot man), has slaughtered a goat, has alienated his neighbors and his wife ("She made it very clear she didn't want God around when the baby arrived"), so by the time the ark request intrudes -- while he's watching Jay Leno on TV -- Schwartzman decides to get rid of God.

Schwartzman's psychiatrist, who specialized in stalkers, advises his patient to ignore this voyeuristic, sadistic lonely member of society.

"Every time you respond, you're positively reinforcing his behavior," Dr. Herschberg tells Schwartzman, adding that the stalker will find a new person to bother after he doesn't get what he wants.

It proves to be questionable advice for dealing with God -- who, after all, has countermeasures in his arsenal. Like Job, Schwartzman and his wife lose everything -- but unlike the distraught prophet, the couple "had never been happier." Finally, this mean, vindictive, sulking God leaves the nonreligious couple alone and finds someone else to bother. The story ends on this one word: "Schmuck."

No, these are not tales for the true believers. Nor are these stories for those who cannot laugh at themselves. Although how can you not laugh at Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League calling an emergency meeting of the Jewish Defense League to disprove "The Book of Stan" -- tablets that claimed the Old Testament was fictional? ("If there were no real tribe, then there were no real Jews, and if there were no real Jews there could be no real anti-Semitism, and if there were no anti-Semitism, then Abe and his staff were s--- out of a job.")

The 14 short stories in this thin book are, for the most part, irreverent, cynical apostasy that is not particularly high on character development but heavy on humor and spoof. The exception is the comic-tragic, storyless story, "Holocaust Tips for Kids," which would be handy when Holocaust educators want to scare the hell out of middle-schoolers.

The humor has a deeper point, of course. God may not be dead, but He's sure "tired of the whole damn business."

In one of the strongest stories, "Somebody Up There Likes You," God is distraught -- cursing and smoking cigarettes, actually -- over His inability to kill Bloom. It proves true, in fact, that it's hard to kill someone who drives a Volvo. He, the devil and Lucifer go down to Manhattan to find Bloom "but even for archangels, crosstown traffic on a Friday afternoon was treacherously slow going." It unfolds that Bloom has outfoxed them once again and has gone -- where else? To a synagogue to repent: "He was where they all went when they wanted to make His job more difficult than it had to be."

Like other pious characters in Auslander's world, it's only when Bloom finishes his repentance, prayer and charity to remove the evil of the decree" that God, Lucifer and the devil finally manage to run him down in the middle of the street.

In "Beware of God," prayer, repentance and following God's will are all for suckers, because, as it says in "God Is a Big Happy Chicken," well, God is a big, happy chicken. You get the feeling that Auslander is very much like the main character of that story, Yankel Morgenstern, who goes back to Earth to tell his nine children and pious wife of his awful discovery. In the end, "He couldn't do it." Morgenstern can't bring himself to ruin his family's belief in "the Merciful God, the God of our Forefathers."

Auslander also doesn't seem like he's renounced his faith -- despite his various portrayals of God as wacko, demanding, tired, moody and malevolent. Yet no matter how many jokes he cracks about God and his followers, Auslander is, in the end, much like a latter-day Nietzsche, albeit with a smirk, proclaiming: "God Is Dead. Long Live God!"

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