Being something of a disaffected Orthodox Jew myself, I was captivated by Shalom Auslander’s no-holds-barred evocation of the right-wing modern Orthodox world in his new memoir “Foreskin’s Lament.”
Echoing the themes of his debut story collection, “Beware of God,” “Foreskin’s” travels along parallel tracks, documenting Auslander’s increasing God-centric paranoia, fueled by his wife’s pregnancy, while detailing how a product of the yeshiva day-school system ended up living a proudly secular (albeit God-haunted) life in Woodstock, New York.
Auslander is at his macho-man silliest when he concentrates on the former, detailing the gruesome fates he envisions for his wife and unborn baby like his day job was screenwriter for “Saw 12.” Having spent his life escaping the crippling expectations of his family and religious community, it is entirely understandable that Auslander would want to avoid encumbering himself with equivalent literary burdens. And yet, the shock value of his wife’s grisly (imagined) death, a clever side-step around readers’ expectations of “proper” subject matter the first time he brings it up, is increasingly less entertaining the next 25 times. Auslander, or his authorial stand-in, is still standing in front of that same chain-link fence, the one with the “Beware of God” sign, pondering the source of the feral snuffling coming from behind it, and daydreaming about rattling the fence just one more time. Auslander has spent a lifetime removing the shackles of religion, but God, CEO of the “Department of Ironic Punishmentation,” still threatens to bite, intent on zinging Shalom for all his real and perceived trespasses against the deity.

Auslander is a fabulist, a spinner of tall tales, but his ace in the hole is the arc of his own life–from his ultra-Orthodox day school to a stint at Yeshiva University’s high school and a year at a reform school/yeshiva in Israel. Having once been an insider, and now removed himself from the closed circle of Orthodoxy, Auslander is an astute observer of this alien world–educated in its ways but deeply skeptical of its assertions. Readers unfamiliar with Orthodox Judaism will imagine that Auslander is prone to exaggeration; those familiar with its ways will know how little he does. From the competitive blessing bees to young Shalom’s forbidden desires for non-kosher Slim Jims to “the warm security blanket of absolute belief” he briefly wraps around himself in Israel, Auslander’s story is that of any rebellious Orthodox son dreaming of escape into the wider world outside the prison-house of religion. Whether every word of Auslander’s memoir is literally true is debatable (I’m guessing that quite a bit of it is exaggerated for effect, as is his right); but there is no doubt that “Foreskin’s Lament” feels true.
— written by Saul Austerlitz

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