Shalom Auslander's Foreskin

Funny, shocking, multi-layered, ironic, confused, conflicted, self-hating and yet not a prick. That's how Phillip Roth's Portnoy character came across to many of us. A character who stumbles and yearns and progress and grows and yet never even begins. Hapless and misguided by the wrong values, yet not obnoxious.

Auslander's attempt to create an equivalent protagonist for the current generation of American Jews in his new book Foreskin's Lament is a failure. He crafts a mean-spirited little prick of a character whose main preoccupation is to connect his sins -- straying from the laws of the Torah -- with God's punishment of his parents and of the New York Rangers and, heaven forbid, of his new born son.

Forgive me for using the term "prick" but I do so because that is the most evocative term that Auslander can muster to describe his putative relationship with the ribbono shel olam, with G-d, who he addresses with that honorific time and time again.

Let's cut through the rather tedious caricatures of an Orthodox adolescent daring to eat treif on shabbos while shopping with a shikse. Does anyone think this trite stuff has shock value or makes for an interesting vehicle for fictional characterization? Yikes. A number of publishers at the New Yorker and elsewhere do think that.

When one chapter of this book appeared in the New Yorker I was momentarily dazzled. The premise was comical in a way -- that the hero and heroine would walk 14 miles in their Shabbos clothes from Teaneck to Madison Square Garden to watch the Rangers away-game on the jumbotron. But this was no Seinfeld episode. This was no Roth misadventure. The humor evaporated when this became just another tiresome chapter in a protracted "lament".

Okay now. Is the lament fictional? I hope so. I hope Auslander has tried to craft an obnoxious superficial ass of a character. 'Cause that is what he ends up with.

Here are a man and woman in Shalom's world who don't have the patience or courtesy to have a bris for their son. They have him circumcised to avoid the wrath of the "prick" in heaven. But no bris. No care for community, for tribe, for family, for mother. These two are the epitome of the self absorbed, neurotic, obnoxious, nauseating characters of contemporary fiction.

Now finally, all told, Auslander is either a genius who has the ability to craft purely distasteful and unappealing Judaic protagonists whose conflicts revolt us without the least bit of humor or wit. And this in turn crafts an intentionally tepid and repetitive critique of the vacuity of popular contemporary religious thinking, meant to mock the self-seriousness of our would-be media theologians.

Or there is the other possibility, namely that Shalom is adept at selective self reflective and deprecating memoir writing - I hope this is not the case -- a talent which reveals him to us as one of the leading obnoxious "pricks" of his generation of Jews and writers -- with little insight and less intellect than anyone would want to imagine.

Ultimately does this book have any positive redeeming value? For me, yes. This was the first book that I read on my new Amazon Kindle. I got used to the device, practiced turning pages and bookmarking passages and was able to begin forming my critical opinions about that invention. Accordingly, for me, reading Foreskin's Lament was not a total waste of time. [The Village Voice is not as kind in their review.]


Anonymous said...

Anyone notice that Auslander looks like the youthful Orson Welles?

You write with contempt of Auslander's confession that he had is son circumcised (presumably in the maternity ward) but refused to give him a bris. This is most definitely not eccentric; over the past 100 odd years, many secular American Jews elected to do just that. The kid's gotta be cut, otherwise the parents are reminded of the possibility that they are self-hating Jews every time they change his diaper or give him a bath. For the past 150 years, raising an anteater has been taken as the ultimate sign of a Jewish couple that has thrown in the towel on preserving Jewish identity.

But these same couples also find that making a religious ritual out of genital surgery is just too weird for words. Judaism is about as far from phallic worship as you can get. Being a Jew is supposed to be about advancing political and social values, science, and culture. And as a pretty girl I knew in grad school once confided to me: "a bris takes too long; they drag it out with prayers." (In truth, the bris chop is quicker than the Gomco clamp.) I also submit that there's a grain of truth in what a nice fellow once told Ronald Goldman: "We Jews circumcise because we are Americans as much because we are Jews." For someone with a very Jewish surname to be mocked in the locker room for having a foreskin would be pure Lenny Bruce, and not something that to which I would subject my kid.

The USA goyim are gradually giving up the chop, guys, which means that the religiously tepid among us are marching to a moment of truth. Our secular European brothers are often uncut. Will our grandchildren conform to the new American norm in a desire to reduce the chance that they will become the butt of anti-semitic banter in the locker room? Jews + Gentiles + sports was a loaded cocktail at the time of the Maccabees. The rabbinical response to that crisis was to introduce the bared glans we all know and love, making it impossible for a nice cheder boy to pass for a goy. (Also, Jewish men stopped exercising until the 20th century.) and history could repeat itself. But what will the response be this time?

Anonymous said...

I think you are missing the point. The man grew up with a fundamentalist view of the Torah and G-d. To top it off, he had an abusive father and a mother who had her head in the sand. She was more worried about how to arrange the room. His father is off drinking and doing who knows what with porno mags and videos while cursing as he constructs a holy ark. How ironic! A relationship that he has "cultivated" is a unique for homes where this is abuse, physical and emotional. Judaism suffers from the fantasy that if you just follow the rules everything will be okay. Judaism will flourish when adults as parents love their kids without buying them off with toys and communities spend more time treating each other with respect rather than trying to control their every move, because it's not lining up with their interpretation. It's a shame it worked out for Shalom Auslander in the way it did, but I think he has genuine pain and issues dealing with the first 20 years of his life. Judaism needs less fundamentalism and more rational thinking and less hyper-emotionalism. Otherwise, we're going to end up with more outflows from the Hassidic world, the Blackhat world, as well all the other sects of Judaism. There's no balance.