Reading Between the Lines: No need to lament

It's a big month for Jewish writers.

By DANIEL SEPTIMUS
October 11, 2007 11:23
3 minute read.

It's a big month for Jewish writers. Just a few weeks ago, Jerusalem's own Peter Cole - a poet, publisher and translator - was among 24 recipients of the MacArthur Foundation's "genius" award. In addition to the honor and prestige, Cole, who is best-known for his translations of the medieval Hebrew poets Solomon Ibn Gabirol and Shmuel Hanagid, will receive $500,000. That such a talented and dedicated steward of literature - and a kind, gracious man to boot - should achieve such recognition (and compensation) tilts the scales of justice in the fickle world of arts and letters. In book news, the release of Philip Roth's new novel Exit Ghost concluded the saga of Nathan Zuckerman, the author's longtime literary alter-ego. And Joshua Henkin's Matrimony hit the shelves 10 years after his first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson, was published. Meanwhile, Amy Bloom's Away, which tells the story of a seamstress at the Goldfaden Yiddish Theater in the 1920s has been on the New York Times best-seller list for more than a month. Yet the Jewish-interest book likely to make the most noise this October is Shalom Auslander's Foreskin's Lament. Auslander's Lament is a chronicle of the writer's Orthodox upbringing. While Auslander reveals much about his family's dysfunction, the book is more concerned with the theological dysfunction in his life. Auslander grew up in Monsey, New York, on the religious border between modern Orthodox and haredi Judaism. But while his family's ideological location may be somewhat ambiguous, the nature of its deity came through loud and clear. "When I was a child, my parents and teachers told me about a man who was very strong. They told me he could destroy the whole world. They told me he could lift mountains. They told me he could part the sea. It was important to keep the man happy." Auslander's God is angry, vindictive and, above all, violent. He terrorized Shalom as a kid and, perhaps not surprisingly, the Eternal One hasn't slowed much with age. Auslander's term for this condition: theological abuse. Foreskin's Lament is funny, smart and heartbreaking. It's also unnecessarily repetitive, but then again, repetition is a sine qua non of observant Judaism, and while Auslander may feel bullied by religion, he is still profoundly (if perversely) religious. "I believe in God. It's been a real problem for me," writes Auslander. Good writing must be honest, and Auslander's honesty is as bold and ruthless as any I've ever read. His relationship with his - and his parents' - pornography is detailed in full. And even I felt a little guilty laughing at young Auslander putting on his kippa to shoplift more efficiently. No doubt, those with ties to Orthodoxy will cringe when reading the book. As it turns out, Noah Feldman was just the opening act, and Auslander makes the gentleman from Harvard look like Emily Post. Feldman was lambasted for his New York Times article about his relationship with his modern Orthodox alma mater after marrying a non-Jew, but to a certain extent, this was a sign that the community took him seriously. From the perspective of his critics, Feldman may have been a self-righteous shanda, but he was no fool. His Rhodes Scholarship ruled out that option. Auslander, on the other hand, may very well be ignored by the Orthodox community. His profanity and hutzpa will be used to discredit his voice. Which would be a shame. Because buried under all of that dirty laundry is the first true literary depiction of a certain brand of American Orthodoxy. The brachos bee scene, in which young Shalom is pressured to recall the proper blessings for "ice cream in a cone," is both priceless and utterly novel. Especially for those of us who passed through similar classrooms and challenges. More importantly, there's much in Auslander's critique that's valuable. While I may have been less tormented by my Orthodox education, Auslander's basic gripes ring true. Fear and guilt are all too often the primary religious motivators. So try to push past the blasphemy and drug use and incessant sexual fantasies. Auslander's rants may sound like kvetching, but think about it, Jeremiah and Isaiah kvetched a bit too. It's what prophets do. dseptimus@gmail.com


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