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by Jessica Bennett
When—while browsing your local bookstore, clicking your way through some online bookseller, or perhaps reading this review—you first encounter Shalom Auslander’s memoir of escaping his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, you may find the title intriguing, amusing, or kind of repulsive. If your reaction closely matches the last of these, please don’t pick it up and read it, for G-d’s sake. There’s no better example of truth-in-titling to hit the shelves this year. What’s contained between the covers is every bit as frank, honest, and darkly humorous as Foreskin’s Lament implies. From self-abuse to embarrassing encounters with junk food to sexual hang-ups to ritual circumcision, it seems there’s nothing Auslander won’t share.
If your inclination is to snort, chuckle, and read on, what you’ll find is the best bit of painfully so-not-funny-it’s-funny writing since David Sedaris’s transcendent Naked. Growing up in a household marked by the double-whammy of alcoholism and orthodoxy forged neuroses and guilt that make Woody Allen’s nebbish-y kvetching sound like a John Denver song. Fortunately for us, the writing here is so sharp, so take-no-prisoners and show-no-mercy—least of all to the writer himself—that what could have been unbearably maudlin is instead a page-flipping, guiltily entertaining ride.
Orthodox Judaism can make old-time religions look like young whippersnappers. Auslander, in a slight rewrite of Deuteronomy that forms the epigraph for the book, illustrates the dark, vengeful side of the Biblical teachings that became the basis of three major world religions:
4. And the Lord said unto Moses,
“This is the land I promised you,
but you shall not enter. Psych.”
5. And Moses died.
What Auslander goes on to do in the pages that follow is introduce us to the particular craziness that is the religion of his youth. A religion that dictates that since his name, “Shalom,” is one of the names of God, any paper on which he writes his full name—be it a sacred scroll or a math test—can never be destroyed or thrown away. (No word on what would happen if he named a teddy bear after himself). A religion that dictates specific blessings to be said for every kind of food, and has “blessing bees,” akin to spelling bees, to teach kids which one to say in a tricky situation, like a Chunky bar with Raisins (“shehakol, then ha-eitz”). Of course, there are no blessings for those foods which are traif, or non-Kosher and thus forbidden—like Slim-Jims, with which Auslander had a secret affair at nine years old. These rules may not be bad in and of themselves, but the ways in which they become internalized in young Shalom, through a steady diet of fear and intimidation, are what leave such deep scars in the adult man.
As Auslander sees it, the deity of this religion is an unforgiving bastard, waiting for one screw-up so that He can rain down almighty vengeance on everyone little Shalom holds dear. He’s such a bastard, in fact, that he makes Auslander’s abusive, alcoholic, prick of a father seem at least a little pitiable by comparison. He’s such a bastard that Shalom is compelled to rebel in increasingly outlandish ways, and just as ferociously compelled to repent with giant pyres of porn in his back yard, and ultimately with a last-ditch effort at religious observance in Israel, complete with black hat and forelocks.
In the end, Foreskin’s Lament is as much an exorcism as a memoir, a big middle-finger-in-the-air to the man upstairs. Throughout the book, Auslander documents his struggle with writing something so blasphemous that it led to countless drafts dragged to the trash and deleted forever when the fear of punishment became too much to bear. Thank G-d he let this one see the light of day.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007/2008