When I emailed Shalom Auslander, inviting him to help me summon the courage necessary to write first-person non-fiction my parents might not like, he wrote back: “Any time I can help drive a wedge between family members, I’m happy to try.”
I had been dying to talk to Auslander for three years since I devoured, Foreskin’s Lament, his 2007 memoir about breaking away first from Hassidism and then from his crazy family following the birth of his first son. With his unique brand of bleak, acid humor, Auslander writes of being “raised like a veal” in the orthodox Jewish community of Monsey, New York, where he was indoctrinated with the crippling fear of an angry, malevolent god. He endures life with an alcoholic, violent father and a manipulative, intrusive mother, not to mention a classmate who is intent on punking Auslander by squeezing his balls. With life clearly sucking, and no apparent payoff for his piety, it’s no wonder he’s tempted to test god, first with non-kosher food, and later with shoplifting and porn.
As someone who was raised with reform Judaism, my negative experiences with religion pale next to Auslander’s. Seriously – the one thing I was ever forbidden to do was “date” a Puerto Rican boy when I was 11. Still, I closely identified with the need to break free of a heavily-imposed non-sensical and neurotic set of guiding principals. And I so admired his fearlessness in depicting everyone, including himself, in all their mishuggenah glory.
I met with Auslander, who is finishing his first novel, at a café near his home in Woodstock, New York.
Shalom Auslander: Well I had done seven or eight pieces for “This American Life,” and I was wondering how they might fit together. Originally I just thought they would be individual pieces. But at the time I was doing it I was also going through this final break up with my family, and having a son at the same time, so I decided, Well let me just write this for him. So it became an explanation. It never really will be, but it was my first sort of shot at explaining why I am the way I am and where I came from and all that kind of stuff. Also, I kind of felt that I was not ever going to get over that subject matter until I did this.
Rumpus: I know that feeling so well.
Auslander: You know, there was this feeling that it had to be done, like, head-on or I was going to deal with it obliquely for the rest of my life and I did not necessarily want to do that.
Rumpus: I read an essay you wrote for Tablet magazine in 2006 about how you went to the memoir section of a book store, and all the other memoirs – by people who either had to live a closeted gay life, or had overcome heroin abuse or something – made you feel like your story wasn’t outstanding in any way. And then in Foreskin’s Lament, you and your wife are having a conversation in which she points out that you were “theologically abused,” and of course, that’s your hook. That’s a pretty good one. But did you really not see that at the time you were shopping for books?
Rumpus: It did not occur to you at all?
Auslander: No. But why would it occur to anybody? You know. Besides, I did not want to do it in the first place. As I was doing it I was like, this is the porno of the publishing world.
Rumpus: You think so?
Auslander: Well, no, I do not think so, but that is the perception. And part of the perception is because you go to the bookstore and it’s gay priests, and I fuck sheep, and my mommy was a serial killer, and you are like, why does anyone read this stuff and why am I writing it? And then I would think, okay, god’s an asshole and hates me, but is that enough of a story? Is that really that bad?
Rumpus: I love memoirs, and often my favorites are the ones written by people who do not necessarily have some extreme ailment or tragic story. I felt like your memoir, even though it is so much about being theologically abused, was in many ways universally relatable.
Auslander: Well, I see it, and always kind of saw it, more as a book about someone individuating. The fact that it is from religion is almost irrelevant. I mean it is the source of some of that anger and humor, but it could be anything. It could be any religion, it could be any world. It could have been, you know, my parents were out of control hippies. It could be anything.
Rumpus: Yeah, I think memoirs are often coming-out stories – people “coming out” as themselves and saying, “Look, this who I really am.” I am really wrestling with that myself. I’m caught between being the fake, dutiful cantor’s daughter and being a writer who has some uncomfortable things to say that people, especially my father, won’t like.
Auslander: I get you. So you are in contact with him?
Rumpus: Yeah I am in contact with him, but I have a very conflicted relationship with him. I have not been treated badly the way you were treated. And I do not feel like I can cut him out. Although, there has always been this threat my whole life of him disowning me. His only sister got disowned. He has not spoken to his sister since 1976. She married a Puerto Rican man and became a Jew for Jesus, among other things, so she was out.
Auslander: Is there like some kind of paperwork involved in that? I would not mind sending the forms to my family.
Rumpus: Hmm. I don’t know.
Auslander: I remember reading the actual letter from when Spinoza was excommunicated and it is so satisfying! It is so silly and ridiculous, you know? You are out!
Rumpus: You are never getting back in!
Auslander: When we get the promised land you get nothing! That is so silly. But I was like, wow, I wish I could get one of those.
Rumpus: How long has it been since you have spoken to your family?