As a child in the strictly Orthodox Jewish community of the upstate New York town of Monsey, Shalom Auslander was a victim of what he half-seriously calls "theological abuse." "It involves adults, known or unknown to the underage victim, telling them a Lunatic runs the world, that He's spying on them, that He's waiting for them to break a rule." Auslander realized early on that even the most devout rule-following was unlikely to be rewarded, but he couldn't shake the idea that disobedience was surely punished. His memoir, "Foreskin's Lament," is an attempt to describe to his infant son his difficult relationship with this implacable force. Anecdotes range from a youth of lavish onanism through an adolescence of shoplifting and cannabinoidal anesthesis to an adulthood of much of the same, minus the shoplifting. It is an episodic tale of weak rebellion invariably succeeded by incapacitating remorse, and he hopes it will explain why he refuses to raise his children within the same tradition.
Auslander's book is not about how he disburdened himself of religious anxiety, what he nicely describes as "the tedious, disingenuous algebra of penance and sin." It is about how even now -- happily married with this new son, estranged from his family -- the Lunatic continues to consume him. "I read Spinoza. I read Nietzsche. I read National Lampoon. Nothing helps. I live with Him every day, and behold, He is still angry, still vengeful, still -- eternally -- pissed off." This is an abstract of what follows: an acquaintance with the intellectual issues at hand; an easy familiarity with pornography; a flat admission of his fearful proximity to the divine antagonist; and the tense rictus of a flip punch line.
This is not to say that Auslander is mawkish or crass. He can be a moving writer; many passages describe with great skill the airless, oppressive climate of Monsey. Perhaps the finest chapter recounts the time his father -- a carpenter who wanted for respect in the scholarly community -- was commissioned by the local rabbi to build a new ark for the congregation's Torah scrolls, only to be humiliated and ignored upon its unveiling.
And he can be funny: A reminiscence of his first dalliance with non-kosher food ranks with sections of "Portnoy's Complaint." Auslander watches a Gentile order ahead of him at a poolside hot-dog stand. "Vinnie stood beside me, piling his pig dog high with sauerkraut and thin-cut pickles. I stared, open-mouthed, as he flipped his hair back, cleared a path to his mouth, and took a bite. It was as if he'd never heard of Leviticus 11:7."
When Auslander manages to make his emotional and his comedic content cohere, he achieves moments of true wit. Here is Auslander on the moment when he and his wife, Orli, learned that she was pregnant: "We kissed, we wept, we held each other tightly; she, I suppose, imagining pink bows, lullabies, and baby booties, as I imagined kneeling beside a hospital delivery bed, sobbing, mother and child dead." This is how, he imagines, God will punish him for his writing. It is in places like these that Auslander is able to recognize and mock the self-indulgence of his religious paranoia. More often than not, however, his sense of humor sits uneasily with his contrition and fear. Two paragraphs later, he tells us the presumptive reason God would kill Orli in childbirth: "The stories I had been working on were about my life under the thumb of an abusive, belligerent god, a god who awoke millennia ago on the wrong side of the firmament and still hasn't cheered up. Working title: 'God Walks Beside Me with a .45 in My Ribs.' "
This stuff is shtick, and the book is full of it. There is shtick about separating the "men from the goys." There is shtick about his self-abuse with his mother's Oil of Olay: "I was depressed and I was lonely, but my genitals never looked younger." This is Catskills patter told with the tinny affectation of public radio's "This American Life" (to which Auslander contributes). In turning his terrible fear to bathos, he cheapens his story.
The fact that parts of his memoir are so excellent makes such lapses more frustrating. I suspect it has something to do with the irrationality of belief -- the primary problem of Auslander's life and the primary problem with this book. Why, he asks, does evil exist in a world he has been taught is ruled by a just God? It's unfair to criticize him for failing to solve the puzzle of theodicy, but it seems fair to say that he has not successfully examined the sources of his vertigo and shame. Auslander takes theodicy as a given of the world; he doesn't consider the possibility that it is instead a function of his religious psychology. Why, he refuses to ask, does he feel such a strong need to believe in a God that is so irrational?