Some gods are grumpier than others; having been born in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in upstate New York, Shalom Auslander had the bad luck to get the one particular god who "awoke millennia ago on the wrong side of the firmament and still hasn't cheered up." From childhood, Auslander has had to contend daily with this famously vengeful personal God - and few gods are more vengeful, or take things more personally. Even now, as a man in his thirties and a father himself (especially as a father himself, one might say), he cringes to think of the countless potential smitings he has by now earned, for himself and everyone he loves. He knows that his blasphemies have been so numerous, as have been his failures to observe any number of the 613 commandments of the Torah on any number of occasions, that even if he became perfectly observant tomorrow and remained so for the rest of his life, this God would just not be impressed. In fact, he'd probably smite Auslander just for having the nerve to act all pious all of a sudden. Knowing God, he'd pick a nicely ironic moment to do so.
Like now, for instance. You see, Auslander seems to be in an exceptionally good place. He's happily married, with a healthy child, and his career is developing nicely. He offers us regular glimpses into this contented existence as the memoir goes on, perhaps just to reassure us that everything turns out all right in the end. Because things definitely don't start out all right. In the first vignette from his childhood, he is eight years old, and he is trying to kill his father.
With the help of God, of course. He has two plans for this, which he will carry out simultaneously. The first is to be as pious as possible, so that God will reward him by killing his father. He studies hard for a "blessing bee" at his yeshiva - like a spelling bee, but involving prayers said over different kinds of foods. The alternate plan is to be as evil as possible (which isn't all that hard, given the fantastic number of rules available for breaking) so that God will punish him by killing his father. Either way, his father dies. It seems like a no-lose proposition. Of course, God seems to know what he's up to and doesn't oblige him either way: he loses the blessing bee and his curses come to nothing.
But this episode sets the pattern that will continue for the rest of his life: the ferocity of Auslander's blasphemy is matched only by that of his piety. (He remains an intense believer to this day.) Once he reaches adolescence and is able to obtain some independence, Auslander travels down a very dark path, violating commandments just for the pleasure of violating them. And what pleasure it brings! No fruit is sweeter than forbidden fruit, and Auslander manages to eat a whole orchard's worth.
It's not that his transgressions are all that serious. Auslander confines himself to such crimes as masturbation, partaking of forbidden food (or more commonly, partaking of permitted food at forbidden times), watching TV and using a car on a Saturday, and a few things the authors of the Torah never dreamed of, like smoking pot and watching porn. In other words, he allows himself to live like the rest of us. But unfortunately for him, he's afflicted with the hyper-moralistic mindset of his community, which likes nothing more than to define crimes into existence. The irony is that the extreme darkness of these passages derives solely from the oppressive guilt he feels at each violation of some pointless rule or other. The darkness derives from his grim certainty that if (if) he chokes on the next bite of pork, that will surely be God's doing. It's not like God isn't capable of it. As Auslander points out in an early passage, to judge by the Torah, God almost seems to be looking for excuses to kill Jews, individually and en masse; Hitler was as nothing compared to Him.
As we know, Auslander eventually escapes for good and makes his nest in the safe, liberalized environment of Woodstock. It's to his credit that, despite the malforming influence of his community and total estrangement from his family, he really is a well-adjusted, responsible guy with a good sense of humor about his trials. Few memoirists can recall abuse endured in childhood with such poignance and humor as Shalom Auslander does, and in my experience, no other has anything like his peculiar mixture of narcissism and humility. But perhaps that's just the effect of his schooling in God: the narcissism comes from being told that one is foremost in the mind of the most powerful being in the universe; the humility comes from being told that you're worthless in the eyes of that same being.
Although he leavens his story with a great deal of humor, it nonetheless makes for a sad and troubling document. There's a happy ending, but it is so hard-won. In a way, it is akin to a slave narrative, in that it relates the tale of an innocent, captured and sold into bondage, who must labor and scheme in patience, vigilant for the day he can escape his chains, only to discover that once he does, the worst aspect of slavery - the conviction that one does not deserve freedom - is the hardest chain of all to shake free. But perhaps he has shaken that chain free. Let's hope he can give himself permission to be happy in the secular world.
By his account, he has destroyed and rewritten this memoir several times before finally publishing it: destroyed each time he feared God might, for instance, kill his baby - and rewritten each time he recovered his courage. Some stories, it seems, cannot go untold. I hope he's not having second thoughts now, because this lament is now beyond retraction.