Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Foreskin's lament - Shalom Auslander

The first 10 pages of this book had me howling with laughter. Tears were streaming down my face. People in the public space around me were puzzled and amused - and some were even a tad alarmed.

It is a memoir about the author's - "Jewishness", I suppose. I would suspect that one or two religious Jews, many post-modern non-religious Jews and also, probably, non-Jews who are interested in theology, and/or God, and/or things related to any of those, will enjoy it. Having grown up amongst Jews and knowing a bit about theology, it appealed to me in a range of ways. It is often very funny indeed. It is sometimes extremely sad, sometimes brutal and always memorable. But, I want to warn, it is not for the prissy or the theologically sensitive.

The book is ostensibly a memoir written during the last few weeks of the author's wife's pregnancy. His fear that, because of his past and present sins and indiscretions, God is going to punish him by causing something terrible to happen to the child, or his wife, or himself. And so the whole book is really a narrative conversation between the author and God - and of course - significant members of his family. His mother and father are the epitome of "Jewishness". They keep Kosher. They live in what is essentially a Jewish ghetto in New York state. They expect their children to follow the Jewish way and cannot, even remotely, imagine them not doing so. They are profoundly disappointed by their wayward son. He never manages to meet their standard and their religion is non-negotiable, unbending and stultifying. Their son seems to understand the God of their religion, but he is cursed to be forever at odds with that God.

Auslander's life journey is dominated by the God he understands to be ruling the universe - unforgiving, callous, often cruel, all-powerful, but capricious, vindictive and whose actions are there to outwit and ensnare you.

"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. When we obeyed what the man had commanded, the man liked us. he liked us so much that he killed anyone who didn't like us. But when we didn't obey what he had commanded, he didn't like us. He hated us. Some days he hated us so much, he killed us; other days, he let other people kill us. We call these days 'holidays.' ... The people of Monsey were terrified of God, and they taught me to be terrified of him too - ...(they taught me about) a man named Moses, who escaped from Egypt and who roamed through the desert for forty years in search of a promised land, and whom God killed just before he reached it...because Moses had sinned, once, forty years earlier. His crime?Hitting a rock."

And that sets the thematic basis for the book. It is a critique of orthodox Judaism, in its more unthinking and uncritical manifestations. But at the same time it is a critique of similar forms of Christianity. The problem about the book, however, is that the people who are going to read it with some enjoyment are going to be the people who, themselves are critical and thinking. It is unlikely to be read (let along enjoyed!), by the "orthodox" of either religion, because the issues he raises continuously, the events he describes, his doubts, his language - will all be dismissed as blasphemous, diabolical, crude etcetera, before they leave the page. Which is why I say, it is not for the prissy.

The central point of the dichotomy of fear and fascination, in relation to God is, surely, a compelling one. And even more when that fear so easily becomes paranoid and irrational - or worse, rational! The book is a narrative of the twists and turns in the psycho-religious development of an individual, but it is also a mirror which one can use to focus on one's own experience of God, or at least, the God one is taught to believe in.

In the end, I thought it was worth a read, but didn't need to be as long as it was. It should be prescribed reading for first year Biblical Studies students. I doubt it will be!

Shalom Auslander, Foreskin's Lament , Picador paperback, 2009 (First published in 2007 - Riverhead)

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