- Shalom AuslanderRiverhead Paperback, 2008, $15
Auslander found life in Monsey insular and stifling. His mother was “the doyenne of death,” a decorating magazine-addicted housewife who doted on bad news and misfortune; his father, a Manischewitz-binging bully constantly roaring at his family for any transgression, religious or otherwise. He was an angry man, unrelentingly strict, quick with the fists, and, occasionally, a blatant hypocrite. Essentially, he was a lot like his son’s idea of The Creator.
“I believe in God,” Auslander writes. “It’s been a real problem for me.”
The list of forbiddens was long, the one of allowables, painfully short. By age nine, Auslander had embarked on a mission to ignore their distinctions, and spent his teens on a secular binge that included Slim Jims, pot, pornography, and shoplifting (a pursuit made easy by the holy aura cast by his yarmulke and payes). His mission was excess, and it even encompassed religion for a while. But in his early 20s, he met a kindred spirit named Orli, and together they sought a way out. The pair married and eventually moved to the land of anything-goes: Woodstock.
But exorcizing Auslander’s religious upbringing would take more than cutting off his family and changing location. He found himself unceasingly haunted by an omnipresent being whose desire was not to promote good works, but encourage great fear of getting caught doing bad ones.
There’s a fair share of spleen on these pages, but what makes Auslander’s story a standout, both in print and in excerpts that have played on NPR’s “This American Life,” is the way he uses humor to scratch a breathing hole in the thick, suffocating ice of religious fear.
“Theological abuse” is one term he and Orli invented for his malady. Others were “spiritually groped,” and “touched inappropriately by an angel.” Acknowledging such feelings about his religion was an act of courage. Writing about them was an even bigger one. “My teachers told me that it is a sin punishable by death from above for a Jew to embarrass the Jewish people, which I am concerned these stories do,” he says. “But I take a deep breath and remember that Aaron Spelling’s doing okay, and if he’s not an embarrassment to the Jewish people, I don’t know who is.” (That Spelling has died since this writing may prove the folly of tempting fate.)
Past and present collide when Orli gives birth and the worst possible thing happens: The child is a boy. A boy’s foreskin represents a Jewish Mason-Dixon Line. To the south lies the eight-days-after-birth bris, complete with knife-wielding Moyl; to the north are parents with the chutzpah to turn against all they’ve been taught, and make different choices.
Though religious struggles remain part of Auslander’s life, isolation does not. Former Orthodox Jews aren’t the only ones who go through life feeling as cut off and discarded as he. “I’ve been thinking about the people in my life now,” he says, “I think they’re all foreskins. A little foreskin nation trying their best to start over, build up, move on.” Amen.