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Jewish Journal

Esther on Auslander

by Brad A. Greenberg

December 11, 2007 | 1:13 pm

No, not that Esther. But Esther Kustanowitz does have a Web site called The Book of Esther. She also carries a ridiculous number of titles in Jewish journalism—senior editor for PresenTense, contributor to papers including mine and blogger here, here and here.

She’s a talented, prolific writer, and has a good piece in the current American Jewish Life magazine about Shalom Auslander’s foreskin, er “Foreskin’s Lament.” Here it is:

In the beginning, the name of a child represents not so much the child himself, but the hope of his parents. As the child grows, he might grow into the significance of that name, or spend his life running from it. Shalom Auslander was named for a peace that his parents hoped to find after the death of one child and the deafness of another. But Auslander’s memoir, Foreskin’s Lament, illustrates that, sometimes, peace of mind is just not in the cards.

Auslander’s narrative is both shocking and familiar, especially to those of us who graduated from yeshiva day schools. We, too, struggled to translate tradition’s archaic foibles into contemporary resonance; attempted to integrate individuality into a blindingly black-and-white context of sameness; and looked everywhere for peace of mind and spirit. His description of “Holocaust fatigue” - a condition experienced by yeshiva kids exposed to graphic images perhaps earlier than is emotionally optimal - is particularly spot on, as is how he illustrates the inefficacy of parental invocation of the Holocaust as justification for contemporary observance. Our generation feels the Holocaust keenly as part of our history, but its existence doesn’t necessarily mobilize us for action or infuse tradition with meaning: it creates guilt, and if you’re already prone to God-fearing, anxiety about a horrific repeat.

“It is my job as a man to get to know God,” Auslander proclaims at a book reading in Manhattan the night before his international book tour begins. “This is the book I wrote about Him.” The author shares his yearning for the peace of atheism, which he is unable to attain. “I do believe in God,” he sighs, “but ‘believe’ sounds positive. I’m more ‘terrified’. I would kill for [atheist Richard] Dawkins’ certainty, so I could sleep for just one night.”

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