Sun, Oct 07, 2007 - Page 18 News List

Shalom Auslander can't escape God's sick humor

The author of 'Foreskin's Lament,' is no longer an observant Jew, but still worries that God might want to punish him for writing the funny, irreverent book

By Charles McGrath  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE, MONSEY, NEW YORK

Foreskin's Lament

Shalom Auslander ends Foreskin's Lament, his memoir of growing up in, and eventually breaking away from, the Orthodox Jewish community, not with an acknowledgments page but with a list of people God might consider punishing instead of the author's family.

Auslander is no longer observant, but he is still a believer, and he believes in a wrathful, vengeful God who takes things personally and is not at all pleased when someone leaves the fold and writes an angry and very funny book about it.

"The people who raised me will say I am not religious," he writes. "They are mistaken." He adds: "I am painfully, cripplingly, incurably, miserably religious, and I have watched lately, dumbfounded and distraught, as around the world, more and more people seem to be finding gods, each more hateful and bloody than the next, as I'm doing my best to lose Him. I'm failing miserably."

On the second day of the Rosh Hashana holiday last month, Auslander visited Monsey, a village in Rockland County, New York, for the first time in years. Driving down the New York State Thruway from his new home near Woodstock, he worried that God might take this occasion to snare him in a fatal car wreck. He had even rented a sport utility vehicle, rather than risk being caught in the family wheels on a day when no observant Jew would even think of driving. "It was in the back of my mind the whole time," he said. "That would be a great punch line - for me to die in Monsey just as the book is coming out. There is no sicker comic than God."

Most people were on foot that day in Monsey, walking to and from the village's many synagogues. There were mothers in long dresses and snoods pushing infants in strollers, with boys in suits and yarmulkes skipping alongside; men in black hats and prayer shawls, and some wearing fur hats, breeches and white silk stockings.

"It's not just whether you're Jewish or not - there's a whole checklist," Auslander said, trying to explain the differences among the various groups. "It's like gang symbols. Your clothing, your hat, how you wear your payess," or sidelocks. "This is Crips territory here," he went on, "and just being in a car automatically makes you a Blood." He added: "I try sometimes to see myself through their eyes - as someone who has made a huge mistake. On the other hand, what if the big joke is that God has nothing to do with any of this, and doesn't care about it at all?"

Pausing at a stop sign or to let some people cross the street, Auslander did draw an occasional disapproving glance. But otherwise the morning passed uneventfully as he cruised through the leafy streets of Monsey, its neighborhoods of split-levels, raised ranches and the occasional stuccoed McMansion resembling any other Rockland County suburb unless you look carefully. Auslander pointed to the many yeshivas and synagogues, some quartered in ordinary houses, and to driveways crammed with Big Wheels and plastic playhouses: a sign, he said, of Orthodox families with lots of children.

"It all feels very Twilight Zone to me," he said. "It seems more and more odd and more and more familiar at the same time." He paused outside a house where he used to baby-sit. "The family that used to live here was named Kafka," he said. "I used to wonder about that when I started reading him. It was like, 'Do you know the Goldbergs from Long Island? Do you know the Kafkas from Prague?'"

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