I have to love Shalom Auslander. His memoir Foreskin's Lament is poignant, amusing, daring, and unsettling. One minute it made me giggle, the next I wondered if I was tottering on the brink of insanity.
Though he was raised Jewish and I was Christian, and he went to school while I was taught at home, I can relate to him far too well to be comfortable. His stories of sneaking Slim Jims at the municipal pool Snack Shack made me laugh till my chest began to heave with sobs.
"Cheese or regular?"
Cheese? Pork, with cheese?
Oh. My. God.
I wasn't sneaky, but I envied the wicked with their pepperoni pizza. And I savored every mouthful of my first breakfast bacon as an adult. With stuffed apricot French toast at The Spotted Hog in Peddler's Village, Lahaska, Pennsylvania, with my grandma in 1999. It was amazing.
In one chapter, Auslander describes his school's "Blessing Bee" (you really should hear him tell it!) --a uniquely Jewish competition that could have life-or-death implications for Shalom's family. Only in the darkest depths of religion can a glass of milk, flicking a lightswitch on Friday, and masturbation become lethal weapons wielded in self-defense. Honestly, you need to listen.
Growing up under the "Umbrella of Protection" principle, I had no trouble taking Auslander seriously. And my familiarity with the rules of the Old Testament God caused me to identify strongly with this weary but determined kid growing up Jewish in New York.
"Sitting on the lawn was prohibited because the grass could dye your clothes - dyeing, category 15. Some held that it was also a violation of plowing, category 2, and, should the grass be pulled out of the ground by the heel of your shoe, reaping, category 3." It should be borne in mind that not all Jewish belief is like this. Of a friend who belongs to Reform Judaism, Auslander says he has, theologically speaking, more in common with a Christian.
(from a review in the Guardian)
"Belief can be incredibly exhausting", Auslander remarks in an interview with Terry Gross, who found him "angry".
Auslander sees no significant difference between a madrassa and a yeshiva. Different books, different dress codes, but the message is the same. I would add fundamentalist Christianity to the list. When you are taught what God wants and what are the horrific consequences of choosing your own will over God's, it is easy to understand where religious extremists come from.
Like Auslander, I am troubled (he feels "dumbfounded and distraught") to see people around me finding god, when I am "trying to lose him".
Also like him, some family relationships are painful and difficult, thanks to religion. I am still negotiating these.
In the meantime, I find stories like these to be cathartic. And honesty like that expressed by Shalom Auslander is yet another beacon along the way to living out an authentic and contented life.