Auslander, Shalom: Foreskin's Lament
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Riverhead Books © 2007, 310 pages [amazon]
Shalom Auslander grew up in the 1970s and 80s in Monsey, New York, in an Orthodox Jewish family, with all that entailed: the arcana of kosher dietary restrictions; the uniform of the Orthodox Jew--tzitzis and peyis and yarmulke; the mind-numbing bordeom of Sabbath, when most worthwhile human activitiy is forbidden by Jewish law.
"It was forbidden to watch TV, it was forbidden to write, it was forbidden to draw, it was forbidden to color. It was forbidden to play with trains because they used electricity. It was forbidden to play with Legos because it was considered building. It was forbidden to play with Silly Putty because if you pressed it against a newspaper it would transfer some of the ink to itself, and so it was considered printing."
More specifically, Auslander grew up in an unhappy Orthodox Jewish family. His father was belligerent and volatile and given to threats involving amputation. His mother wallowed in misery and home decorating. It's hardly surprising that in adulthood Auslander has complicated relationships with both his family and God, the latter an angry entity who, much like Auslander's father, specializes in inconsistent and disproportionate punishments. But Auslander still believes. He believes, for example, that God keeps a particularly careful eye on his misdemeanors, and he is always expecting God to screw him over.
[INSET TEXT: It's hardly surprising that in adulthood Auslander has complicated relationships with both his family and God, the latter an angry entity who, much like Auslander's father, specializes in inconsistent and disproportionate punishments.] Auslander writes about his fallings-out with both family and God in his very readable memoir Foreskin's Lament. (The reason for the title is made clear about halfway through the book.) He describes the various ways he acted out against both as a teenager; his back-and-forthing on the question of keeping kosher; his self-imposed, frankly shocking acts of penance. The book is a fast read and fascinating for the light it sheds on the lifestyle of the ultra-Orthodox and on Auslander in particular. It is both funny (with one of the most original acknowledgment pages you'll ever read) and poignant, especially when the author is describing his conflicted relationship with his father, whom he manages to portray as both unlikeable and tragic.
Auslander's book serves as a healthy reminder of the perverse influence of religion:
"Thousands of years ago, a terrified, half-made old man genitally mutilated his son, hoping it would buy him some points with the Being he hoped was running the show. Over the years, equally terrified men wrote blessings and composed prayers and devised rituals and ordained that an empty seat be left for Elijah. Six thousand years later, a father will not look his grandson in the face, and a mother and sister will defend such behavior, because the child wasn't mutilitated in precisely the right fashion.
"Come see what your sons are doing in the world."
The author is still not fully recovered from the effects of his religious instruction, but he's happier. It's just a shame that he had to waste so much energy and so much time undergoing that indoctrination and, in turn, in attempting to slough it off.