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Foreskin's Lament: A Memoirby Shalom Auslander
Synopses & Reviews
Shalom Auslander was raised with a terrified respect for God. Even as he grew up and was estranged from his community, his religion and its traditions, he could not find his way to a life where he didn't struggle against God daily. Foreskin's Lament reveals Auslander's youth in a strict, socially isolated Orthodox community, and recounts his rebellion and efforts to make a new life apart from it. Auslander remembers his youthful attempt to win the blessing bee (the Orthodox version of a spelling bee), his exile to an Orthodox-style reform school in Israel after he's caught shoplifting Union Bay jeans from the mall, and his fourteen mile hike to watch the New York Rangers play in Madison Square Garden without violating the Sabbath. Throughout, Auslander struggles to understand God and His complicated, often contradictory laws. He tries to negotiate with God and His representatives-a day of sin-free living for a day of indulgence, a blessing for each profanity. But ultimately, Shalom settles for a peaceful cease-fire, a standoff with God, and accepts the very slim remaining hope that his newborn son might live free of guilt, doubt, and struggle. Auslander's combination of unrelenting humor and anger — one that draws comparisons to memoirists David Sedaris and Dave Eggers — renders a rich and fascinating portrait of a man grappling with his faith, family, and community.
"'Auslander, a magazine writer, describes his Orthodox Jewish upbringing as 'theological abuse' in this sardonic, twitchy memoir that waits for the other shoe to drop from on high. The title refers to his agitation over whether to circumcise his soon to be born son, yet another Jewish ritual stirring confusion and fear in his soul. Flitting haphazardly between expectant-father neuroses in Woodstock, N.Y., and childhood neuroses in Monsey, N.Y., Auslander labors mightily to channel Philip Roth with cutting, comically anxious spiels lamenting his claustrophobic house, off-kilter family and the temptations of all things nonkosher, from shiksas to Slim Jims. The irony of his name, Shalom (Hebrew for 'peace'), isn't lost on him, a tormented soul gripped with dread, fending off an alcoholic, abusive father while imagining his heavenly one as a menacing, mocking, inescapable presence. Fond of tormenting himself with worst-case scenarios, he concludes, 'That would be so God.' Like Roth's Portnoy, he commits minor acts of rebellion and awaits his punishment with youthful literal-mindedness. But this memoir is too wonky to engage the reader's sympathy or cut free Auslander's persona from the swath of stereotype — and he can't sublimate his rage into the cultural mischief that brightens Roth's oeuvre. That said, a surprisingly poignant ending awaits readers.' Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"It is a curious fact that some of the most celebrated grandees of Jewish American literature — Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer — never bothered much in their books with the habitual features of religious life. For a variety of reasons, whatever is considered Jewish about these writers' works has little to do with synagogues, prayer, rituals, the Torah or its God. So when... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) an ambitious newcomer enters the literary arena with the specific intention of addressing his relationship with the religion of Judaism, it's a noteworthy occasion. 'I believe in God,' declares Shalom Auslander in a new memoir about his self-inflicted exclusion from the stringently observant Jewish community in which he came of age in the 1980s. 'It's been a real problem for me.' Why? Auslander's God is in a supremely bad mood, all the time. When He's not busy smiting people, He's concocting ingenious ways to terrorize the unsuspecting. Capricious, punitive, prone to violent rages, Auslander's Almighty has a particular interest in pouring out wrath on the author himself, who, even now, in his mid-30s, remains sure that every instance of personal good fortune (his happy marriage, the impending birth of his first child) offers this God a divine opportunity to punish him for his many sins. Those sins, which seem rather ordinary in the go-for-broke context of the contemporary American memoir, include covert indulgences in pornography, shoplifting, non-kosher fast food and marijuana. But in the context of the Orthodox Jewish community of Monsey, N.Y., which was the author's milieu during childhood and adolescence, they are grievous transgressions. In fact, the Monsey community deemed any surrender to 'the evil inclination,' especially those that involve assimilation with the secular world, as 'finishing what Hitler had started,' or aiding in the ultimate destruction of Jewish life altogether. We learn quickly that there is more to the young Auslander's defiant behavior than simple mutiny against an oppressive God and His ornate compilation of rules and requirements. From an early age, the boy was attempting to find ways to escape the unpredictable behavior of his own abusive father. Capricious, punitive and prone to violent rages — particularly after knocking back a more than ceremonial amount of Sabbath wine — Auslander's father was a genuinely frightening figure. He poured hot chicken soup over his older son's face and slapped and shoved him repeatedly for perceived impertinences, cursed and roared like a dybbuk and snored thunderously on the living room floor. A loner and a disappointment to Auslander's mother, who comes from a family of famous rabbis, the father found refuge in his workshop in the garage, where he built cabinets and bookcases 'with less and less patience and more and more fury.' As a very young boy, Auslander tried to ease the household volatility in a variety of ways. At the dinner table, he distracted his father with droll Nixon impersonations and pratfalls. He helped his father in the garage, building a specially commissioned new ark to house their synagogue's Torahs. (The project ended in humiliation for both father and son when the congregation failed to appreciate their handiwork.) One by one, the boy's attempts to defuse the father's anger collapsed, fostering his own fund of bitterness and compelling him to seek distractions in the forbidden world beyond his community. Yet anywhere Auslander went — to the local mall, to a religious high school in Manhattan, to a yeshiva for wayward teens in Israel, back to New York to embark on marriage and fatherhood and a final, irreparable break with his parents — he was still unable to dispense with his legacy of anger and 'the tedious, disingenuous algebra of penance and sin.' His vision of the Promised Land, which he has yet to locate, is one where there is no God at all. In a nifty reversal of so many contemporary memoirs, whose authors seek to gain spirituality, Auslander seeks ardently and unsuccessfully to lose it. It's possible, even easy, for readers to feel abundantly sympathetic toward Auslander but blankly unenthusiastic about his book. The bitter energy that drives the narrative forward is also its greatest limitation: Crippled by emotional uniformity — angry God, angry dad, angry son — Auslander's journey turns into a tedious and undernourishing experience for the reader, seeming both too long and not long enough. Falling into that whiny-victim manner that is the memoirist's blight, Auslander (who's also the author of a 2005 story collection, 'Beware of God,' a book so slight that it seems more like a literary to-do list) begins to think of himself as a foreskin, brutally cast off from his community, isolated and unloved. Like much in the memoir, this is a glib, too-cute formulation that threatens to cancel out many of the author's more serious questions about how to coexist with a merciless God. And as for that mercilessness, it's hard to ignore the many blessings this same God has given our hapless author, including a loving wife, a healthy son and — the greatest gift a writer could hope to receive — a childhood so miserable that it could, if judiciously used, provide a lifetime's worth of invaluable material." Reviewed by Donna Rifkind, who reviews regularly for The Washington Post Book World, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Shalom Auslander writes like Philip Roth's angry nephew. Foreskin's Lament is a scathing theological rant, a funny, oddly moving coming-of-age memoir, and an irreverent meditation on family, marriage, and cultural identity. God may be a bit irritated by this book, but I loved it." Tom Perrotta, author of Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher
"If you read this while you're eating, the food will come out your nose. Foreskin's Lament is a filthy and slightly troubling dialogue with God, the big, old, physically abusive ultra orthodox God who brought His Chosen People out of Egypt to torture them with non kosher Slim Jims. I loved this book and will never again look at the isolated religious nutjobs on the fringe of American society with anything less than love and understanding." Matt Klam, author of Sam the Cat
"[A]n audacious, poke-God-in-the-eye memoir written by thirtysomething Shalom Auslander, who waxes hilariously upon the 'theological abuse' he suffered during a strict Orthodox upbringing in Monsey, N.Y." Miami Herald
"Writing with humor and bitter irony about the most personal subjects, with deep, real-world consequences, is no task for an acolyte, although many have tried. With his middle finger pointed at the heavens and a hand held over his heart, Auslander gives us Foreskin's Lament. Mazel tov to him." New York Times
"[A] terrific book I was sad I read in so few sittings, because I wanted more." San Francisco Chronicle
"Auslander calls God names you're not allowed to call your little brother. I found the book lyrical, hysterical and refreshingly atypical." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Writing funny and angry columns is one thing, but sustaining that pitch of laughter and fury for the length of a book is extraordinarily difficult. Auslander succeeds." Philadelphia Inquirer
"It would be a mistake to construe this book as anti-Semitic. It is, instead, a repudiation of fundamentalisms of all stripes." St. Petersburg Times
In his bitingly funny memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional Jewish family and wrestling with a vengeful God, Auslander's combination of unrelenting humor and anger renders a rich and fascinating portrait of a man grappling with his faith, family, and community.
I was nine years old when my mother forced me to convert to Christianity .”
When Theodore Ross moved from New York City to small-town Mississippi, his mother insisted that the family pretend to not be Jewish. He was sent to an Episcopal school, where he studied the Bible, sang in the choir, and even took communion. As an adult, he abandoned the religious charade, but wondered: Am I a Jew? In search of an answer, Ross immersed himself within communities on the fringes of Jewish identity—Crypto-Jews,” Lost Tribes,” the ultra-Orthodox, and more. Filled with humor, curiosity, and sincerity, Am I a Jew? explores Americas riotous religious diversity, and one mans quest to stake a claim within it.
A New York Times Notable Book, and a chaotic, laugh riot” (San Francisco Chronicle) of a memoir.
Shalom Auslander was raised with a terrified respect for God. Even as he grew up and was estranged from his community, his religion and its traditions, he could not find the path to a life where he didnt struggle daily with the fear of Gods formidable wrath. Foreskins Lament reveals Auslanders painfully, cripplingly, incurably, miserably religious” youth in a strict, socially isolated Orthodox Jewish community, and recounts his rebellion and efforts to make a new life apart from it. His combination of unrelenting humor and anger renders a rich and fascinating portrait of a man grappling with his faith and family.
About the Author
Shalom Auslander was raised in Monsey, New York. Nominated for the Koret Award for writers under thirty-five, he has written for The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and is a regular contributor to NPR's "This American Life," His short story collection, Beware of God, was published in 2005. He lives in New York.
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