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Tuesday, November 13, 2007
The Bookshelf: Sex, Lies and Shoplifting

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.

Shalom Auslander's twisted new memoir tells the tale of a God-fearing yeshiva boy with a vendetta against the Almighty.

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." In print, Auslander is relentlessly dark, in a way that may obscure the acute humor of his observations. But in person, in some moments, he breaks character from that of his narrator, loosens his demeanor slightly, permitting half-smiles and even a few chuckles to infiltrate his otherwise serious game face.

His family relationship is strained, or as the author explains, "My family and I are like oil and water, if oil made water depressed and angry and want to kill itself." When a classmate's father dies, Shalom muses about what kinds of sins the kid had committed to make his father die, wondering if he could pull off the same trick. He becomes preoccupied with sex, uncovering troves of pornography and inventing an imaginary girlfriend. He struggles with unkosher temptations, from a poolside Slim Jim to an encounter with a prostitute. He shoplifts; first non-kosher candy, then cassette tapes and clothing, which eventually gets him arrested. In an Israeli yeshiva-as-community-service, he's split on the life-and-death power of the Western Wall, but knows that if he doesn't shove notes into the wall's crevices, he will be responsible for the death of his ailing grandmother. And throughout, he's fully aware that whatever happens to him as a result of these transgressions is the work of what he dubs God's "Department of Ironic Punishmentation" (the DIP): "I rode my bike to the nearby convenience mart, bought a couple of Moon Pies, and rode back, terrified the whole way that I would get hit by a car, die, and my mother would find them in my pocket. That would be so God."

Ideally, I'd sit at a cafe with Auslander and ask about what it's like to live with the anger, the paranoia, the paralysis and fear that must accompany theistic certainty: there is a God, He is powerful, and He's definitely out to get you. But this book tour is ruining my plan. Coffee with the God-terrified author is off the table. Instead, I stare at; the image of a padded cell greets me and I get lost in its perfectly spaced creases. The white cushioned walls remind me of madness and marshmallows, a pair that for Orthodox kids, is linked by the menacing, yet temptingly evil, gelatin. I stare at the author's photo, and he glares back at me, like Orson Welles warning me of an impending alien invasion. I feel his paranoia pass osmotically into the cells in my blood most likely to boil at Talmudic discussions that don't seem to have any bearing on a modern life.

The audience at the book reading I attend is a sea of familiar, familial faces - many yeshiva refugees themselves. They're here because they understand: just because you're paranoid doesn't mean God's not out to get you for catching up on TiVo on Shabbat. And also, maybe because if Auslander mocks God, we don't have to vocalize our own doubts and fears: we can just say "Amen."

Foreskin's Lament shares a titular phonic symmetry with Portnoy's Complaint, with that kvetchiness warning that the book, a text immersed in the culture and concerns of the teenage boy who-would-be-man in an oppressive family, is not likely to be adapted by Disney. The obsession with all things forbidden and the pornography-obsessed, self-deprecating yeshiva boy's pursuit of sexual self-gratification is stark - like a version of Superbad that doesn't roll on Shabbos. (At least not without guilt, a secret taxicab, and Talmudic loopholes.)

Can you ever trust a memoir to convey a stenographer-style truth, or is it always tainted by guilt, hindsight and senility? Perhaps the best you can say about any memoir is that it is vivid, and feels intensely true. The book, itself an unusually informal yet intensive treatise on the intent, character and nature of God and on divine involvement in human history, contains conversations from a lifetime of conflict, challenging authority and tradition. Whether or not the conversations are fact or memory, the dialogue is rendered without quotation marks, with a long dash heralding a new speaker. It seems like Auslander, throughout, is telling us: This is what happened, but don't quote me on it.

If there's any proof of God's occasional benevolence, it might just be the miracle of Auslander having found his wife, Orli, a kindred - or at least complementary - spirit, who with her very name ("I have light") brings some illumination and hope to the boy named after peace. But any reader of Foreskin's Lament would understand that Auslander sees apparent miracles as setups for some ironic, tragic twist courtesy of "the DIP."

Despite Auslander's apparent desire to distance himself from his parents and constant fears that all his happiness will be stripped from him by an angry and vengeful (or possibly just bored) deity, he and Orli named their son Paix. But in this name, essentially a variant of the same sentiment Shalom's parents had when they named him, there is perhaps, a vague hope amidst the doom and gloom. Or perhaps the symmetry between the father's name and his son is a calculated irony.

But the readers will be patient. We'll find out someday, even if it takes two decades. When Paix Auslander goes on tour to promote his memoir, we'll be in the first row at Barnes and Noble.

-- Text by Esther D. Kustanowitz

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.
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