Foreskin’s Lament

I told Dr. Hirsch that I had been thinking about suicide. — Not about committing it, I said. — Just about its theological implications. This passage from near the close of Shalom Auslander’s grimly funny Foreskin’s Lament captures the attitude and obsession that define this unusual memoir. It’s less a coming-of-age story than the account of one man’s struggle with an elusive, powerful adversary — who just happens to be the One True God. The product of a strictly observant Orthodox Jewish upbringing, Auslander chronicles a childhood marked by the dread of a deity straight out of Thomas Hardy — capricious, enigmatic, and amused by the human struggle to make sense of Him. As a boy the author discovers that his best defense against this adversary is to mine a layer of black humor deep enough to hide from even an all-seeing presence. (“Good one, God,” is a refrain.)

But it’s not Auslander’s strategy to hide; rather, this often self-lacerating book holds nearly nothing back. The unvarnished mess of the author’s family life — from his mother’s commitment to local respectability, to his rebellious brother’s archetypal battle with a drink-tormented father, to his own growing obsessions with shoplifting and transgressive sex — is brought forward in mesmerizing focus. Even more vivid are the scenes with the irascible characters responsible for the author’s religious education — which he unforgettably characterizes as “theological abuse.” Infused with a unyielding rage (and sometimes nearly capsized by it) the story of how Auslander abandons their world for a loving one of his own choosing is also the tale of how he’s never quite left it behind. —