Shalom Auslander believes in God. It’s been a real problem for him.
That refrain runs through his new memoir, “Foreskin’s Lament” (Riverhead), and with good reason.
Auslander’s God, the one he was taught to fear and obey by the Orthodox rabbis who instructed him for the better part of 20 years, is not a loving, benevolent God. He is murderous, angry and violent. He smites and he floods. He demands total submission and submits totally outrageous demands. And when his will is flouted, He exacts retribution of colossal and, well, biblical proportions.
“Go through, make a Word document of the Old Testament and do a find/change, and everything that comes as God make it Alan. And then write a report on what kind of a person Alan is,” Auslander says. “Alan is a bit of a dick, clearly. Alan needs help. And we don’t treat it that way because we’re looking at it as God.”
It is an unseasonably hot day in September, just days before the Oct. 4 release of Auslander’s bitterly funny memoir. He is wearing a heavy black sweatshirt and sipping red-tinted vitamin water in a cafe near his home in upstate New York.
Around his neck is a metal chain with the Hebrew word “Acher,” literally “Other One,” a reference to his hero, Elisha ben Abuya, the first century rabbi who was excommunicated for heresy. It’s an appropriate choice — of hero and jewelry — for a writer whose stories in the New Yorker magazine, excerpted chapters of the memoir, made many Jews cringe.
In a few hours the festival of Sukkot will begin, but Auslander won’t be anywhere near a sukkah. In fact, he stays as far away as possible from God these days.
His wife, Orli, a tanned Londoner with a decidedly less contentious relationship with the Holy One, has more affinity for Jewish tradition than her husband. She hung some plastic fruit in their house to mark the holiday, which Auslander says his son, Paix (rhymes with Max), thought was pretty.
On Yom Kippur, the couple took a long walk in the woods near Woodstock. On Chanukah they lit candles without a blessing.
“We’re on a strict no-blessing policy on the house,” Auslander says. “I don’t mind doing things, but no God.”
Auslander lives in a town that due to its association with a certain music festival — the real Woodstock happened in nearby Bethel — has become a magnet for social misfits of varying stripes. It is a place where Grateful Dead songs play on the radio in the shops along Mill Hill Road, patchouli and incense waft through the air, and sightings of dreadlocks and tie-dye are de rigueur.
Though the Orthodox enclave of his youth is barely an hour down the interstate, Auslander is temperamentally a world away. Or at least he wants to be.
The “theological abuse” he endured as a child — where he came to believe that a fickle accountant in the sky tabulates every misstep and spends his days concocting ironic means of exacting revenge — isn’t easily undone. He still believes in God. More to the point, he’s terrified of him. It’s a real problem.
“It doesn’t go away,” he says. “I’m a bit more rational about it. I don’t give him the finger as much as I used to — at least not physically.”
Auslander grew up in Monsey — like a boxed-in veal, he writes, in one of his many memorable coinages. He attended a yeshiva day school, went on to Yeshiva University’s high school for boys and then, for two years, attended an Israeli institution known for rescuing wayward American Jews.
As a kid, Auslander was more interested in the goings-on at the local shopping mall than studying Talmud. As a young adult, as his tastes presumably matured, he migrated to marijuana and pornography.
“I grew up around people who were terrorized,” Auslander says. “Everybody I knew was terrorized. God was a scary thing. You go into synagogue on Yom Kippur, people are shit scared. God is judging you. You’ve got 10 days. The book of life is open. He’s writing shit down. That is not a fun time. None of this is fun.”
Auslander is one of four children — one of his brothers died before he was born — of an emotionally unstable father who tended to get violently drunk at the Shabbat table, the earthy manifestation of Auslander’s Heavenly father.
His mother, the archetype of the long-suffering wife, was not above using Holocaust guilt as a disciplinary device when Auslander got out of line, which was often. He shoplifted, smoked and ate non-kosher food.
In the book he describes stealing his father’s pornography and his mother’s vibrators and incinerating them in an effort to placate an implacable God.
“I was a handful,” he says with uncharacteristic understatement.
For the sake of his own mental health, Auslander hasn’t spoken to his family in years. In the book he describes them unsparingly, though with fleeting hints of affection. He is in touch with his anger — indeed, he embraces it, channeling it into literary production — but guilt is an emotion for which he has little use.
Auslander concedes that his mother may see the book as a public humiliation, but claims to feel no remorse.
“Dude,” he says, “you don’t know what I took out.”
Still, it is visibly hard for him, when pressed, to explain the absence of guilt. Orli, on the other hand, is clear eyed on the subject of Auslander’s mother.
“She’s a complete bitch,” Orli says.
One person who does get a pass of sorts is Auslander’s uncle, the longtime president and current chancellor of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Norman Lamm.
Auslander in the book describes visiting the Manhattan apartment of his “Uncle Nathan,” a man who smoked cigars and bragged about his famous friends. Other names in the book are changed as well, and Auslander’s parents are never named, allowing the author to claim that the book was not fashioned as a personal attack.
Perhaps. But it certainly is a general attack, and Auslander’s anger has all the subtlety of a pit bull.
Withering scenes of an unhappy childhood are anchored by the narrative of Paix’s birth and the attendant questions it raises of when, and how, God is going to kill the child. With a miscarriage? During childbirth, taking Orli as well? In a traffic accident returning from the hospital? (For the record, Paix is a healthy 3-year-old.)
From these questions emerges a deeper one: To circumcise or not to circumcise?
For a man with no discernible trace of nostalgia for his roots, it is a peculiar quandary. On the one hand, what better excuse does God need for smiting the baby than rejection of this cardinal rite. On the other, Auslander wonders why he has to mutilate his son just because thousands of years ago some madman believed God wanted him to mutilate his.
It’s a real problem.
In the end, keeping with the no-blessing policy, the couple have the baby circumcised by a doctor at the hospital. And the baby’s foreskin becomes a metaphor for Auslander himself — unwanted, shriveled and cut off.
Writing the book was difficult; readers get a taste of the emotional heavy lifting it required. Flashbacks to his unhappy past are juxtaposed with recent efforts to come to terms with the trauma, much of it crystallized by the foreskin dilemma.
Auslander says the writing was a cathartic process, though not a curative one.
“It was cathartic in the sense that I think it’s time believers got pissed off at God,” he says. “And if I can hasten that movement along, I’ll be very happy with myself.”