Foreskin's Lament: A Memoir, by Shalom Auslander

The devil's in the detail. And the Twinkies
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The Independent Culture

Thank God I'm an atheist! When God wanted to torment Job, who was perfectly righteous, He killed his children and his cattle and smote him with boils from the sole of his foot to his crown. When God wanted to torment Shalom Auslander, who was a smart-aleck kid, He stuck him in a wealthy Jewish hassidic family in Monsey, New York, with an aggressive father and ever-suffering mother, sent him to Torah and Talmud school, and so sorely tried him with zealous Rabbis and commandments that he succumbed to gentile temptations, guzzled Twinkies and cheeseburgers, collected more porno magazines than Larry Flynt, smoked pot and became a serial shoplifter and ogler of blondes.

Auslander has written one book of short stories around his God obsession. This, his second, is presented as a "memoir", albeit in a fictionalised form. It is deftly written, in pithy episodes, and a style which reminds me of how one of my ex-publishers in New York used to decide on the merits of a manuscript: "Two full stops in one line! I'll buy it." It belongs to the genre of American confessional writing which presents the writer as a survivor, in a familiar vein of "victimology" culture.

Job's wife and friends beg him to end his suffering by cursing God and being struck dead. In Foreskin's Lament, Auslander responds to his own plight by launching a lifelong campaign of "God abuse", tempting His wrath at every turn, even unto sticking a note saying "Fuck you" in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. He suffers paroxysms of guilt, believing that every one of his transgressions will bring death and disaster to his parents, his wife and his baby son. All this may be seen by the author's fans as hilarious or of cosmic significance. But angst over God's incomprehensible anger is a standard rite of passage for many an orthodox Jew until the age of 15 or so, when most make up their minds to make a go of it or peel off the yarmulkah.

Read my lips: I don't care whether you love or hate God, or circumcise your son or not. Contemporary Judaism faces a massive moral crisis, but it is not about religion. It is about ethnic politics: the everyday conduct of the Jewish state in its conflict with the Palestinian Arabs.

Auslander does visit Israel, on a mission from Mum to beef up his religious credentials, but his only thoughts on the issue are a fear that an Arab might stab him on the way to the Wailing Wall, or that Arab and Jewish dope dealers can't get their act together. Not so – they get along fine.

There are certainly funny moments and passages in this memoir, and much scorn of the endless religious rituals which are by definition meaningless to all but the devout, of any faith. But if I read one more time that "violating the Sabbath was like violating all 613 commandments", I'll burn my tsitsis. Charlie Chaplin, in his role as a serial wife killer in his movie, Monsieur Verdoux, when he was begged on the brink of execution by a priest to make his peace with God, replied: "I am at peace with God; my conflict is with Man."

This is worth all of Auslander's narrative. Foreskin's Lament is a displacement therapy, a moral blindness to evade the obvious.

Jerusalem is burning, and some are contemplating only the shape of the flames. Auslander hasn't done badly. He has a wife and healthy son whom he loves and a nice place in upstate New York. Enjoy, and get on with life, for God's sake!

Simon Louvish's biography 'Cecil B de Mille and the Golden Calf' is published by Faber & Faber

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