Shalom Auslander's novel about his terrorised Orthodox upbringing has provoked both adoration and revultion. Writing keeps him from insanity
Monsey, New York, is one of the most Jewish places on the planet. It is also, according to Shalom Auslander, who was born there in 1970, one of the most bizarre and emotionally crippling environments in which to experience childhood. Having now left Monsey — and his childhood — far behind, Auslander views his hometown in the manner of an Orthodox Jewish version of film director David Lynch.
“Everything appears to be OK when the camera does its wide pans down the streets, and then, where in Lynch’s film you see an ear on the lawn, in mine, there is somebody with a palm and a lemon and he is shaking them. You don’t know why the guy’s doing that, but you might watch the movie to find out.”
Monsey was where Auslander learned to fear God. And fear is the word. “It’s an interesting question why the rabbis who taught me went, at such a young age, with fear and not with love,” he says. “Why not tell this impressionable child all about love and kindness? That there’s this Presence who just loves you. Why do they go for the purgatory? The violence, flames and torture — you’ll wish you never ate that cheeseburger!
“The point is that fear is more compelling than love. Fear is what you are going to hang on to… and they will take the frightened, paranoid, neurotic adult who stays on the membership roll, over the well-adjusted one who is no longer on the roll.”
Fear eventually led Auslander to the therapist’s couch. The therapist’s couch led him into writing. Writing has led — so far — to two books: Beware of God, a collection of stories; and Foreskin’s Lament, a memoir published in the UK last month. And the books have led to critical success and an appreciative audience.
Sales have been impressive on both sides of the Atlantic: Foreskin’s Lament sold out at the just-concluded Jewish Book Week. Although Auslander is still having virtual fire and brimstone poured over him (these days it is across the internet), many have poured out their own tortured souls in sympathy.
Like the best writers, he achieves distance from the pain through humour. His sense of the ridiculous echoes that of his own literary hero, Samuel Beckett. “The people of Monsey were terrified of God,” Auslander explains in his memoir, “and they taught me to be terrified of Him, too — they taught me about a woman named Sarah who would giggle, so He made her barren; about a man named Job who was sad and asked why? — so God came down to Earth, grabbed Job, and howled: Who the f*** do you think you are?”
But it was not merely Monsey that so terrorised the young Auslander. His home life was presided over by a God-in-miniature, a father capable of exquisite craftsmanship but also of wanton violence, fuelled by rabbinically blessed wine. His mother, too, it seems, gave no balm to the young Shalom, his sister, or his repeatedly beaten elder brother. The rot had set in years before Shalom was born, with the death of a then two-year-old son.
“They never told me how he died,” says Auslander. “I heard conflicting stories: malpractice… someone else’s fault… a very rare disease… a thing that should have been caught easily… His death was blamed for everything. I would ask: ‘Why is Dad like that?’ and I was told: ‘You should never know the death of a child.’
“As a seven- or eight-year-old, I heard that enough times that I would walk down the hall where there was a picture [of my dead brother] and say to the picture: ‘F*** you. Look what you did.’ And once the violence and dysfunction in the family got unbearable… that anger at him eventually grew into a twisted kind of jealousy. I thought: ‘You got out of here before all this bad stuff happened. I have to live through this.’ There were times in my life, when things were going on in my house, I would have changed places with him at a moment’s notice.”
Yet, for all the brilliant, ironic humour, the most powerful sections of Foreskin’s Lament are those in which Auslander is “trying to understand who my father was and how he might have been feeling in a community in which he didn’t belong”. He is irked that most commentators have failed to highlight these or indeed “another chapter, about my mother and the disappointments in her life that caused her always to be dreaming of a better future”.
As the father of a three-year-old son himself now, Auslander is often asked if he is consequently able to feel more sympathy for his parents. He confronts this with characteristic candour: “I understand my parents less than I did before. I look at my son, this amazing child, and think, could I ever stop talking to him because he doesn’t separate milk and meat? Can I ever tell this kid he is not welcome in my house because he drives on Yom Kippur?”
Married to London-born Orli, a painter — “we have both changed drastically in coming to know ourselves and each other” — Auslander still lives in New York State but “in the middle of a forest” near Woodstock. He has long been completely estranged from his previous existence. He says his parents are still alive — “so far as I know” — and expresses no interest in how they might react to reading about themselves in Foreskin’s Lament: “I’d be unsurprised if they hated it and not at all flattered if they liked it.”
Therapy is his new religion — “I pay my new rabbi $350 a week for it” — one that he has practised for 14 years now, ever since he first sought help in coping with his “fairly suicidal” emotions.
Writing, he says, is his way of staying sane. “The greatest thing about it, whether fiction or non-fiction, is going into this scary basement within yourself that you never want to go into in real life. And you go with a flashlight, into the deepest, darkest corners, and you turn a light on and, you know what? — there’s nothing there. And it might be funny that you were worried, and a later reward might be that everyone else thinks it’s funny, too. When I read this stuff to a roomful of people, it’s gratifying that it’s not just me… it is more pronounced in me, but it’s clearly common to everybody. Catholics and Muslims tell me about it.”
Propelled into prominence by Foreskin’s Lament (negotiations are under way for a film version), Auslander is now working on two lines of thought. One is to try to fictionalise “the issue of having a son that I adore, a wife that I love, everything in my house perfect, the setting idyllic, and I can see only awfulness”.
The other is about “biblical characters feeling out of place, never quite belonging”. Naturally, it digs deep into that troubled childhood of his. “I couldn’t wake up in the morning without being afraid of God, of what He might do. I was never taught that this might be a problem. I was taught that this only shows you are closer to God than others. There are a lot of these tales.
“Everyone thought Noah was crazy, but he knew God was coming, so he built his ark. Mental health doesn’t seem to be a guide-post for belief. A lot of the heroes I was taught about were deemed nuts because they were so special, so much closer to God.”
Foreskin’s Lament is published by Picador at £12.99
Snapshot: Shalom Auslander
Monsey, New York, 1970
Woodstock, New York, with wife Orli and son Paix
Story collection: Beware of God; memoir: Foreskin’s Lament
Religious schools in Monsey and then Yeshiva University
Heroes and inspirations
Include Samuel Beckett, Joseph Heller and Lenny Bruce. Dismisses “lazy” comparisons of himself with Philip Roth and Woody Allen. “I know it sounds juvenile, but I don’t really like reading Jewish authors”
On religions and atheism
“Religion is a Rorschach Test. We react to it emotionally. Same on the other, [Richard] Dawkins side. I doubt that people are often convinced intellectually to doubt what they believe in”