Foreskin's Lament: A memoir, By Shalom Auslander

If you wish Richard Dawkins could quip like David Sedaris, then this is the misery memoir for you

Memoirs used to be confined to dusty corners at the back of bookshops. Since Dave Pelzer and Frank McCourt came along, a decade or so ago, all that has changed. The genre has been sexed up, or rather, gloomed down. The misery memoir is now big business, open for anyone with a good turn of phrase, a dismal childhood, and a triumph over adversity to relate in the last chapter.

Shalom Auslander, whose childhood was as grim as any of the misery memoirists, has launched a new sub-genre, the Anger memoir. Auslander's anger, as expressed in his bracing and witty, though off-puttingly titled, Foreskin's Lament, is directed at two entities: his family and God.

Why be angry at God, you may ask? If you don't like the idea of him, then surely you can simply stop believing in him, and he'll more or less leave you alone. If only, for Auslander, things were so simple. Born into a family of Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Monsey, New York, Auslander was brought up under a regimen of brutally strict religious observance. He was sent to religious schools, and his home life was so dominated by the narrow demands of constant religious observance that he likens it to the experience of a veal calf.

Quite aside from the religion, his home was never a happy place. As he puts it, "My brother hated my mother and resented me; my mother loathed my brother and doted on me and my sister; my sister hated my brother and defended my mother; I envied my brother and pitied my mother; my father hated us all; and my mother sighed, washed the dishes, and sang mournful Yiddish songs about the miserable futility of life."

We have all read about dysfunctional families before, though few as extreme and bizarre as the Auslander clan. What makes this memoir original and interesting is where it dwells on the writer's other adversary: God. Never, frankly, can there have been a more blasphemous book. This memoir makes The God Delusion look like a parish newsletter. Auslander reacts to his stiflingly religious childhood by turning against God, but God "like venereal disease" is always with him. He can't shake Him off.

He starts by breaking the dietary laws, bingeing on hot dogs at his local swimming pool: "I was sick. I was diseased. I was a criminal... I ran to the bathroom and forced my fingers down my throat, trying to regurgitate the sins I had already swallowed."

For his entire adolescence he is caught between his desires and the self-hatred that wells up in him when he follows them. "God tests us. Sometimes the test is a slice of non-kosher pizza. Sometimes the test is evil gossip. And sometimes the test is a magazine called Shaved Orientals."

His most sacrilegious act occurs on a visit to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest place on the planet for Jews, where if you write a prayer on a piece of paper and place it in the cracks between the stones, these will supposedly be the first prayers answered by God. Auslander describes the crevices of the wall as being "packed tight with petitions for health, happiness, forgiveness, a cure, a windfall, an answer, a sign, a gruesome gray grout of helplessness and despair". Auslander writes "Fuck you", and shoves it into the wall. He instantly regrets it, but a soldier thwarts his attempts to dig the piece of paper out again.

If there is a defining thread that runs through Jewish-American literature it is in the ability of writers such as Bellow, Heller and Roth, and other less familiar names such as Alan Isler and Elinor Lipman, to intermingle pain and humour seamlessly. When Jewish writing is tragi-comic, it is often not a case of alternating between one state and the other, more that the prose can be simultaneously dark and light, serious and funny. Shalom Auslander comes directly out of this tradition.

For all the unhappiness he describes, this memoir is never self-pitying, maudlin or depressing; nor is he flippant or disingenuous in confronting the difficulties of being an alienated child.

Foreskin's Lament somehow expresses the ideas of Richard Dawkins in the tone of David Sedaris. You can read it for the humour, you can read it as reportage into a secretive and bizarre world, you can read it as a personal tale of triumph over adversity, or you can just read it for the misery. It doesn't really matter. But do read it.

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before