A good friend of mine gave me this book and encouraged me to read it, he thought I could relate to a lot of the contents of the memoir despite the fact that I am not Jewish. He was right. Shalom Auslander’s memoir recounts his upbringing in an extremely strict Hasidic Jewish family and community and his struggles with faith, God, family, and a myriad of other contentious topics and influences. I can easily relate to growing up in an extremely restrictive religious household where rules and regulations dictating every behavior and thought that could enter my brain. God was a looming and punishing presence who could be felt and had to be feared, he was always watching and judging. Who needed big brother and fear of CCTV and surveillance when your Lord and creator could even see inside of your heart and thoughts and was taking copious notes on every single sin you committed or even considered committing?
And so while I never had to observe shabbos or had to avoid traif, I related strongly to the sentiments and thoughts Auslander had towards his own faith and the circumstances that marker his life in significant and indelible ways. Auslander’s god was he of the Old Testament, a much scarier version than most Christians’ supreme deity – the Jewish God makes decrees, demands, he orders and expects perfect obedience, and he is not very loving. Auslander focuses a lot of attention on the fact that Moses, who obeyed God through impossible circumstances and did all that was asked of him no matter the sacrifice, was punished by not being allowed into the Promised Land because one time, literally once, he lost his temper and struck a rock. Yup, a dude hit a rock and was denied the only thing he ever tried to do. Sara laughed once and she was made barren. A loving God he was not, that’s for sure. And yet, or actually because of this, Auslander was afraid, terrified even. The fear of God’s retribution for disobedience affected every thought and aspect of the man’s life. Watching TV on the sabbath? Auslander was sure God would murder his wife and unborn child. Eat non-kosher food? Devastation and total annihilation. Religion sure did a number on him.
I don’t want to make it seem like the book is just a continuous lament, even though the title would direct one to think that. The book is funny! Maybe the humor is a little dark… ok, a lot dark and twisted and wrong, and definitely offensive to the pious and devote. Thing is, for many people, including myself, religion has actually caused more harm than good. For those of us whose lives have been marked negatively by an institution that professes to be loving and accepting but in reality has been nothing but punishing, abusive, and alienating this book is, pardon the pun, a godsend. I loved all the stories, and even more loved Auslander’s voice and tone that teetered between furious and pleading. I won’t explain where the foreskin comes in, but the imagery evoked is as brilliant as it is apropos. Auslander made a believer out of me, and I thoroughly loved the experience of reading the memoir, through cringes and multiple laughs out loud. A true and resounding success!