A Memoir
Shalom Auslander
(Riverhead Books)
Like most of the rest of us, Shalom Auslander has a problem with God ... or god (or the gods).

His god is the Talmudic one, a god of strict rules, no-nonsense: be good or die. Of laughter.

The reader finds himself embedded in a war zone, a family constantly on the edge of imploding --- verbal, physical, mental cruelty, complete with undertones of violent righteousness. There is mother, who wants to be sure he knows how much she has suffered, how he is driving her to the grave with his defiance of the religious laws. There is the father, who says, lovingly, that he will break his "goddamn arms" if he doesn't stay out of his tool-kit, out of his garage, out of his way. There is a brother who, apparently, suffers real physical harm.

Then there are the rules ... the rules!

    --- There's the kosher butcher, she said --- And there's the Dunkin' Donuts. Dunkin' Donuts is kosher, but not the tuna fish, or the eggs. Not sure about the crullers. That's Rabbi Hecht's synagogue. Very Orthodox. You know Rabbi Mandelbaum? That's his synagogue. Our synagogue is up this way...

This is Auslander on eating non-kosher:

    The only place more non-kosher than McDonald's was Red Lobster, but I didn't need God to tell me not to eat things with antennas. Red Lobster seemed like the place God made you eat as punishment for eating non-kosher in the first place --- You like traif? Here! Eat! EAT TRAIF!

Auslander claims he was abused as a child:

    This is the term we've been using lately: theological abuse. It involves adults, known or unknown to the underage victim, telling them a Lunatic runs the world, that he's spying on them, that He's waiting for them to break a rule...

    Other choices include "spiritually groped," "religiously fingered," and "touched inappropriately by an angel."

And, finally, this ... on The Big Cut:

    --- Do you know the sex of the baby?

    --- It's a boy.

    Our friend from the posh neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights was in favor of circumcision, "for, you know, aesthetically," while my attorney, who is gay, recommended that if we had even the slightest suspicion that out son was homosexual, we just leave the damn thing on.

    --- They're very prized in my community, he said.

    At least someone was thinking of the boy.

    I found myself a week later, back in Craig's office, sitting across the way from Patricia, a formerly Orthodox, currently Buddhist, macrobiotic, pro-Palestinian, animal-rights-activist art director.

    --- I can't believe you're even considering it, she said. --- Why don't you just cut off his finger or slice off his nose? Stab him --- knife him --- for God. That's what you're talking about, isn't it?

    I was beginning to feel a bit like a foreskin myself.

    --- Why don't you just punch him in the face? she suggested as she gathered her papers in an angry pile and started to leave. --- Wait eight days, invite the family over, put out some wine and kugel, and just punch him in the fucking face.

    A lot like a foreskin. Cut off from my past, uncertain of my future, bloodied, beaten, tossed away. I wondered if there was a place where the foreskins could go, a place where they could live together, peacefully, loved, wanted, a nation of the foreskins, by the foreskins, for the foreskins.

    Patricia slammed the door behind her as she left. Craig sat down on the chair across from me.

    --- Listen, he said.

    He took a deep breath and told me that as far as he was concerned, growing up was difficult enough, and that the only reason he had circumcised his own sons was so that they wouldn't wonder someday why they were different from their dad.

    --- And that, he said, --- seemed like a pretty important reason.

    I nodded. I liked the whole selflessness angle, but I sighed and shook my head. The fact was, I said to Craig, if I really wanted to ease my son's insecurities by making his penis look like mine, I wasn't going to have to just circumcise him; I was going to have to shave his balls and give him a Prince Albert.

    Craig looked at me for a moment before checking his watch.

    --- I've got a ten o'clock, he said.

Foreskin's Lament brings together all the elements we could ever want in a novel. J. D. Salinger on growing up, Philip Roth on living in the real world, and S. J. Perlman on staying sane (or nuts). The major difference is Auslander's divine, who is always on the make, under the table, in the picture --- always sucking you in (and then screwing you).

God hovers over all. He is a madman who bedevils you constantly to drive you to despair. Or worse, a monster who forces you to go bonkers and foul everything up. Irrevocably.

I finished Foreskin's Lament in a day. I wished it was twice as long. It certainly couldn't be any funnier.

--- Rebecca Wise
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