Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir by Shalom Auslander, Riverhead Press.
I don’t know what to make of this coming-of-age memoir. On the one hand, it is funny, filled with risible episodes from a disordered youth. On the other hand, it is a highly emotional, almost hysterical, rant against traditional Judaism.
Shalom had to endure long, boring hours at a haredi Yeshiva in Monsey, N. Y., and reside in a strict, socially restricted community. Also, he had to counter the drunken violence of his foul-mouthed carpenter father.
Somewhere in his youth, Shalom began to view God as a personal antagonist, an enemy ready to punish him and thwart both his desires and practices. “There was no need to provoke Him. I’ve been on God’s chessboard long enough to know that every move forward, every bit of good news – Success! Marriage! Child! – is just another Godly gambit, a feign, a fake, a setup; it seems as if I’m making my way across the board, but soon enough God calls check, and the company that hired me goes under, the wife dies, the baby chokes to death. God’s pick-and-roll. The Rope-a-Lordy-Dope. God was here, God was there, God was everywhere.”
In neurotic rebellion, young Shalom turns his back on tradition and family and immerses himself in things forbidden: masturbation, dope smoking, shoplifting and eating treif (non-kosher food). Filled with guilt and anxiety, he is certain of discovery. “I lived in constant fear of being caught. My friends at yeshiva would never understand. I’d be lucky if they ever spoke to me again. If their parents found out I was treif, they would forbid their children from being my friend. My rabbis would pray for my forgiveness. My father would throw me out of the house. And my mother? My mother would bury me in the dirt until I was kosher again.”
Arrested for shoplifting, Shalom is shipped off to a less rigorous Orthodox-style yeshiva in Israel. He remains bewildered and insistent. “The people who raised me say that I am not religious. They are mistaken. What I am is not observant. But I am painfully, cripplingly, incurably, miserably religious.” Again, “I believe in a personal God, everything I do he takes personally.”
An adult Shalom moves to Manhattan, visits an expensive shrink twice a week and worries about his pregnant wife. Is God going to allow a normal birth and a healthy child? Is this God’s opportunity to punish him for his blasphemous tongue and numerous iniquities? An e-mail to the almighty would read: “Dear God, please don’t kill my son during birth. And don’t kill my wife during birth, I know You’re probably pissed at me, but I’m pissed at You, too, so let’s just keep this between. Thanks. S.”
Perhaps the book’s best written chapter is a description of the 14-mile hike on the Sabbath that Shalom and his wife took in sweltering heat to Madison Square Garden to watch a hockey game on a JumboTron TV feed. Maybe God will reward them for not riding on the Sabbath and give the long overdue New York Rangers a Stanley Cup victory.
This book is an angry, irreverent rant against what the author believes is the unwholesome misuse of authority. It is relieved by humour, conviction and a measure of contrition.