the guardian Sat 07 February 2009
I am very sorry for what I am doing to Shalom Auslander by making his memoir the pick of my week. For he knows full well that God is looking out for him, and at any sign of success, He will do something dreadful to him. For that would be, as Auslander says, "so God".
"Our philosophy teacher told us of a man who claimed that God was dead; if only, Friedrich. He was alive, and He was a Prick." What hatred and despair was concealed by the art of his previous collection of stories, Beware of God, is here, in this memoir, made very explicit indeed. Hardly a page goes by without Auslander giving God - quite literally - the finger. Or worse.
One reviewer said that it makes The God Delusion "look like a parish newsletter". There is some justice to this remark, in that almost every page of this book is devoted to cursing God - Auslander is a man capable of writing the words "fuck you" on a piece of paper and shoving it in a crack in the Wailing Wall, where a more typically observant Jew would be rather more likely to insert a prayer - but deep down he is, in a sense, extraordinarily pious. Not like Dawkins at all.
This is a position worth considering. It is certainly more interesting than most anti-religious tracts, which rarely express themselves in a manner which you can see convincing anyone else but their own audience. They are, so to speak, preaching to the converted. As for those rather childish and mealy-mouthed adverts on the sides of buses, telling us there is "probably" no God, one wonders what Auslander would make of them. On one day, one imagines, he would not dare set foot in one, possibly on the grounds that God would send it off a bridge. On another, he would refuse to set foot in any bus except one which displayed the offending slogan.
Similarly, he spent more than a year in Israel studying Torah and whatnot; he also spent a lot of his late adolescence and early adulthood eating non-kosher food, smoking weed and masturbating. Remember the Monty Python song "Every sperm is sacred"? That's nothing to what he was taught. Really, when it comes to inducing guilt about onanism, the Catholics are nowhere.
"They really did a number on you," his wife tells him, and she is right. You wouldn't believe, unless you are already a believer, how complicated Orthodox practice is. There are, for instance, 39 categories of work you cannot perform on the Sabbath (which, incidentally, starts on a Friday evening). Quite a few goyim know about not driving to synagogue, lighting fires or answering the phone, but did you know that you can't even sit on the grass? "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.
A psychoanalyst could look at his case in one of two ways. Auslander's own, presumably mindful of the $350 he can charge per session, has decided to string this one out. Another, I suspect, could wrap it up in 10 minutes. It is about Auslander's father. (I am tempted even to add a "duh" to that, so obvious is it.) Auslander's was a drunken brute - a carpenter, incidentally. Violently pious yet with odd lapses when he doesn't wear his yarmulke, it is, Auslander is reminded by a schoolfriend, as if he is not afraid of God. His father's commandments, his punishments, his rage - there's even a joke photograph section where Auslander depicts his father and God with the same image - are all very strongly reminiscent of the other Big Guy.
Not that Auslander belabours the point. He is an enormously talented and sharp writer, with a great gift for comic timing and expression. This is not so much a laugh-out-loud book as a howl-out-loud book.