Author Shalom Auslander - Beware of God
We did this via email (Shalom returned his answers to me in mid-December, 2006, after a two month wait during which time I feared I had offended him).
Q: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A: Somewhere else.
Q: What did your parents want for you and from you?
A: That's probably a question for them.
Q: What have been your most significant sacrifices and rewards of devoting yourself to writing?
A: I'm not sure that I've devoted myself to writing. I write because when I don't, I want to kill myself. And because when I do, I'm a better husband and a kinder father. So I've devoted myself to not killing myself, and to being a better husband and a kinder father. If there were an easier way to achieve those things than writing, I'd do it.
Q: What message do you wish to send with your author photo?
A: That I dislike being photographed.
Q: In what ways are your perceptions of life keener than other people's?
A: I don't understand the question.
Q: How has your choice of vocation affected your relationships?
A: Only the one with my psychiatrist. We're much closer now.
Q: How do you know when you've done good work?
A: I imagine The New York Times will tell me so.
Q: What do you do best and worst as a writer?
A: I'm quite good at looking over my day's work and hating it all. I'm quite bad at refusing interviews.
Q: Why do you write what you write?
A: Because nobody else will.
Q: Which of your awards has the most meaning to you?
A: I haven't won any awards. I'd joke and say "Best Anal Gangbang, 2004," but you'd know better than most if I were lying about that.
Q: As you travel, what depresses you and what inspires you about jewish life?
A: I am inspired by those who see themselves as more than just Jews. I am depressed by those who think that being Jewish is all that matters.
Q: Have you kept any friends from your Orthodox upbringing?
Q: What do you make of the disproportionate number of Jewish writers who come from an Orthodox background?
A: Reading is fundamental, even reading nutty books written by terrified ancient nomads.
Q: Is there something about orthodox belief that militates against good writing?
A: Probably not. It's just that so many who are raised with orthodox religious beliefs end up in pornography, it's really difficult to get a fair representation of their writing skills. They seem to give good head, though.
Q: Religion and the religious are only portrayed negatively in your writing. Is that a fair observation? Is that a problem or do you plan to keep on trashing religion and the religious until your dying day?
A: It's difficult to infer from that question just what your own personal opinions on religion and my writing might be. I have no problem with religion. I have no problem with guns, either. But thanks to rampant misuse, a hell of a lot of people seem to be getting killed by both.
Q: Is anger the best fuel for good writing?
A: Fuck you.
Q: If you praised a Republican, would your right hand whither? Are any of your friends Republican?
A: I'm trying to decide if this question is more embarrassing to the interviewer if he's a paranoid Republican or if he's a paranoid Democrat. Let's say "Push."
Q: Are you more comfortable dancing with men or women?
A: Finally, a question about writing.
Q Are there any mitzvahs you find yourself keeping but wish you did not?
A: Fearing God. I think I may be stuck with that all-mighty son of a bitch.
Q: Did a rabbi ever touch you inappropriately? Are priests or rabbis more likely to molest kids?
A: If telling a small child that a violent psychopath in the sky is going to punish him for eating cheese with meat passes as inappropriate touching - and I think that it does - then yes, I was touched inappropriately, and repeatedly, by many, many rabbis. Priests do seem to sexually abuse children more often than rabbis, but maybe that's probably because they use more E.
Q: Should man-dog sex be legal? What about man-dog marriage?
A: I'm in favor of anything that might improve humanity's gene pool.
Q: After you've finished trashing religion, what do you want to leave people with to live by? Are your kids going to have as rich a material to draw from as you did? Perhaps you should smack them more?
A: I've bookmarked your site. That oughta do it.
Q: There's nothing in halacah against burying a tattooed jew in a jewish cemetery, so why do you have a rabbi in The Metamorphosis claim there is?
A: Because that was what I was taught growing up. Also, on a related note, that wasn't the point of the story. (Hey, can I change my answer to Question #11? What depresses me most is getting dogmatic, legalistic, bickering questions about stories whose essential point is the intellectual stupidity and emotional damage caused by dogmatic, legalistic bickering. There, that's much better.)
July 1, 2007
From Publisher's Weekly: "Auslander, a magazine writer, describes his Orthodox Jewish upbringing as theological abuse in this sardonic, twitchy memoir that waits for the other shoe to drop from on high. The title refers to his agitation over whether to circumcise his soon to be born son, yet another Jewish ritual stirring confusion and fear in his soul. Flitting haphazardly between expectant-father neuroses in Woodstock, N.Y., and childhood neuroses in Monsey, N.Y., Auslander labors mightily to channel Philip Roth with cutting, comically anxious spiels lamenting his claustrophobic house, off-kilter family and the temptations of all things nonkosher, from shiksas to Slim Jims. The irony of his name, Shalom (Hebrew for peace), isn't lost on him, a tormented soul gripped with dread, fending off an alcoholic, abusive father while imagining his heavenly one as a menacing, mocking, inescapable presence. Fond of tormenting himself with worst-case scenarios, he concludes, That would be so God. Like Roth's Portnoy, he commits minor acts of rebellion and awaits his punishment with youthful literal-mindedness. But this memoir is too wonky to engage the reader's sympathy or cut free Auslander's persona from the swath of stereotype—and he can't sublimate his rage into the cultural mischief that brightens Roth's oeuvre. That said, a surprisingly poignant ending awaits readers."
I found Auslander's memoir identical in tone to his debut collection of short stories, Beware of God. Both books are filled with rage against God, Judaism and Shalom's alcoholic father.
Most people seem to relate to God as they relate to their father. This cliche holds true for Auslander. Both his dad and his God appear in his books as sadistic, blood-thirsty psychopaths.
I have one major question about Shalom: Is his rage for real or is just a literary device?
Ron Stiskin responds to an interview Auslander did with Sarah Ivry of Nextbook: "Shalom: I ordered a copy of Beware of God and pre-ordered a copy of your memoir as well. We have a lot in common, as I mentioned in my post on your "Too Much Information" page. I grew up in Monsey at about the same time you did. I went to HIROC and got stuck with Rabbi Glatzer, just as you did. (And I admired Lintz Rivera, just as you did!) I would like to respond to those who accuse Shalom of blaspheming by blaming God for problems actually caused by his dysfunctional family and his emotional immaturity. Don't you wish. My own experience parallels his. Sure, my family was dysfunctional in some respects - whose isn't? But my Jewish education was far more traumatic, and ultimately far more damaging. Did Shalom and I just get a rotten apple for a teacher? Yes, we did, but that doesn't mean that the Jewish day school system as a whole is hunky-dory. Our school, HIROC, was full of teachers who were themselves deeply traumatized, dysfunctional, abusive, and obviously abnormal to even the most casual observer. To put such people in charge of young children is criminal. It's hard to believe that such things didn't go on in other Jewish day schools as well. To this day, walking into a shul is difficult for me, as is seeing men in Chasidic dress. I remind myself that that was then, and this is now, but it doesn't make it any easier. Meanwhile, cases of abuse in Jewish day schools continue to surface. What does the existence of so many "bad apples" - who, in some cases, were enabled for years by the schools they worked for - say about the system of Jewish education in general? Jewish education cannot be separated from Jewish belief or observance. If you're concerned about these things - or just care about children - take a hard look at Jewish education."
I was wondering if Auslander used real names in his memoir. This comment indicates that he did.
Here's a picture of the Lintz Rivera that young Shalom wanted so badly. She's now a teacher in New Orleans.
Author Marty Beckerman responds to an Auslander column on Nextbook: "The difference between a rottweiler and a Jewish mother: the rottweiler lets go eventually."
But if there is a cultural war among Jews, Auslander is a reluctant recruit. As he explained to me in an e-mail exchange, the essay is representative only of his own experiences. "The piece, as well as the forthcoming book it is taken from, is not a judgment on Judaism: it is the story of one person, raised under the thumb of a violent God, seeking some peace," he wrote.
Auslander began his schooling at the super-Orthodox Yeshiva of Spring Valley in Monsey. He hated it.
"My father's frustrated rage at not having his Manischewitz Concord Grape was fearsome, but it was far better than his drunken rage if he did have it."
One day in fourth grade, Avrumi Mendlowitz jumped on top of Shalom and squeezed his balls. For a long time.
Shalom's uncle Norman Lamm had a man at his apartment who opened the door for you, another man who asked your name before phoning upstairs, and another man who ran the elevator. Rabbi Lamm also had a maid, a limo and a driver. They were all black.
Norman Lamm, who liked to smoke cigars, had a three-story apartment with marble floors.
Rebbitzen Lamm said to Shalom's mom that Harrison Ford lived across the way.
In the den sat a grand piano that nobody played and the settee held a pile of books on art that nobody read.
Norman Lamm liked to boast.
"You know who was here yesterday?" he said. "Herman Wouk."
One day Shalom consoled Avrumi on his low test score. Shalom was rewarded by getting pushed to the ground and having his balls squeezed. For a long time.
For fifth grade, Shalom moved to Torah Academy, which was Modern Orthodox. There were girls at the school and they smelt great.
One day while playing in the woods behind his home, Shalom's life changed forever.
He found a pile of pornographic magazines. After getting jabbed by a stick, one magazine opened up to a picture of a Chinese lady lying naked on her back. The caption read, "Bang my honeypot."
Another day, Shalom found a pile of new magazines. He brought them (Oui, Juggs, Forum, etc) home and studied them like Torah. A few days later, he burned them.
One day, Shalom reached behind his brother's books and found Puritan magazine. He wondered "what was 'cum,' and why did the woman on the cover want me to shoot it all over her face?"
Eventually, Shalom found his dad's porn magazines and his mother's vibrators. Shalom burned them. His dad didn't appreciate it.
July 24, 2007
I emailed the author of Foreskin’s Lament for his opinion of Noah Feldman’s New York Times essay.
Norman Lamm’s nephew replied: "Luke - As someone who was raised Orthodox, I was appalled to read that someone would go through all that - all the accusations, all the emotional turmoil, all the social rejection - and not hook up with a black chick. I am deeply saddened."
Sept. 2, 2007
Sept. 25, 2007: Jason Maoz (editor of The Jewish Press) emails: "Read an advance galley of Foreskin’s Lament. Disappointing. Auslander comes across as a creepy sociopath who gives new and literal meaning to the old and overused phrase "self-hating Jew." Also, I noticed at least one internal inconsistency in terms of the narrative’s chronology. And other parts of the book just seem less than genuine. He doesn’t tie Philip Roth’s shoelaces."
October 18, 2007
Q: What's new between you and God?
I told Shalom to only answer the questions that interested him.
I gave him the same message on the first interview. He ended up answering all my questions, though not in great depth.
He wouldn't give me an interview over the phone, saying he hated interviews, and that email interviews were the least bad form of interview.
I heard several audio interviews with Auslander. WNYC This American Life BBC Fresh Air
Shalom drove around with Charles McGrath of the New York Times on Rosh Hashanah but I was in shul then worshipping God and checking out the ladies.
Here are the questions Shalom did not answer this interview:
* Why do you hate interviews?
* If you were to write a script for a reality show, how would it go?
* How would your closest friends describe you?
Nov. 5, 2007
2:30 p.m. I leave my house to beat the traffic.
3 p.m. I park on Colorado Blvd in Pasadena with four hours to kill.
I go for a walk. I consume three Passion iced teas at Starbucks (refills are only 50c) and reread Chaim Potok's "The Book of Lights."
6 p.m. I hit Vroman's and scan the biography and current events sections.
6:40 p.m. I smuggle my bag upstairs with my cameras. I hope this enormous expenditure of time and gas is worth it.
7:10 p.m. About 40 people sit in the audience (I'm the only one wearing a yarmulke).
Shalom walks in. He's compact and tightly coiled.
He looks up only once during his 15-minutes of reading.
Then he takes questions. They are all friendly and admiring.
He sells about 50 books.
Earlier today, Auslander appeared on Patt Morrison's radio show.
"You know NPR," says Shalom. "They love those self-hating Jews. I'm on there all the time."
Shalom says he doesn't read reviews. About three months ago, he stopped reading about himself online.
I hover on the outside of the conversation, feeling excluded.
Although I thought Shalom Auslander's Nextbook column on Los Angeles was a compendium of every tedious, banal cliche ever hurled at this city, I'm really not - despite some perceptions - one to hold a grudge. I thought his memoir, Foreskin's Lament, was just terrific, and I say so in my review in today's Philadelphia Inquirer.
Auslander explains his Nextbook column ripping LA as a rant. It was the only way to meet his deadline.
When I extend my hand and say my name, Shalom says, "I know."
When I introduce myself to Mark and his friend, there's no light of recognition. Why should there be? I don't write literature.
Sarvas tells Auslander that his blogging doesn't distract him from his more serious writing. "Some days I do it in half an hour. Some days I do it in three or four hours. It motivates me. People are waiting for something."
"Have there been many angry folks who've written?"
Shalom: "No. They all go to Amazon."
There are five one-star reviews.
Theorist writes on Amazon: "Shalom Auslander was abused by his father as a child. In response, he attacks not only his father, but God and Judaism as well. He writes in a breezy style. It's sort of what "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" would sound like if it were read on "This American Life"."
An Aussie in the US for 20 years (Mark's friend) says to Shalom: "You're going to have to deal with them in the real world."
Shalom: "I used to fear they'd come to my house and throw a brick. But I've got big dogs and big guns."
Mark says his upbringing was the opposite of Shalom's. His grandparents were holocaust survivors and his parents were agnostic.
Shalom met a German-Jewish couple in a German restaurant.
He said to the Jew, "Your parents must love her."
The man said they did. His parents were Holocaust survivors. Shalom met them. They did indeed love their German shiksa daughter in law.
When Shalom related how as a child he was told that eating trafe and violating the Torah gave Hitler post-humous victories, the survivors were horrified.
Shalom: "It's like being raised by homosexuals who say that all straight sex is bad."
After Mark leaves, Shalom sits with me for ten minutes.
"I saw out of the corner of my eye a guy wearing tzitzit and a yarmulke... You get worried. Then I recognized you."
"I get picked up at 4:30 a.m. It's not a bad problem to have but I just want to get home and get this over with. This is the biggest trick God's ever played on me. Spend 30 years getting out of it, write about it, and now I'm running around JCCs (Jewish Community Centers)..."
Luke: "I've been disappointed in all this positive stuff from all the Jewish publications except The Jewish Press."
Shalom: "Really? I haven't been reading my reviews. I don't know any writers who read that s---. It's so unhealthy."
Luke: "Really? You don't?"
Shalom: "I did when the pre-press was coming out. Unfortunately, the pre-press are the lunatics."
Luke: "You don't Google your name?"
Shalom: "I've done it."
He says Amazon reviewers are bottom-feeders. "They're people who can't even be bothered to blog. It's not that hard."
Luke: "All these understanding laudatory reviews in Jewish publications..."
Shalom: "It's driving you crazy."
Luke: "I want some vitriol. What's the fun in being a heretic unless people become vitriolic?"
Shalom: "Unless you're really reactionary, you defend the Jews no matter... As I said on NPR today, there's nowhere in the book that I'm saying that Judaism is wrong. I'm saying that what people taught me is f----- up. If you like Judaism and want to rant about how great it is, you don't yell at the taught. Yell at the teacher.
"I feel like I pulled up next to a car on the road, told them they have a flat, they accuse me of hating cars. It doesn't make any sense. There's nowhere I say it is foolish to think that the God of Judaism isn't God. It isn't [Richard] Dawkins."
"I thought it would be OK when The New Yorker ran the hockey piece and people got f----- off and wrote angry letters... This was before I pulled myself off the web. And six months later they ran a chapter about my father trying to build an ark and there's abuse and nothing. Not a word about that. You have to be a real prick to read that and say, 'You shouldn't be saying that.'
"Once you see that this is isn't looking to staby anybody in the book...
"I'd say to people who think Judaism or Catholicism or Islam is a great religion, well, there are a lot of people out there who are teaching kids some f------ up stuff. So take all that religious fervor you have and go get 'em."
Luke: "Anybody bitch you out at your readings?"
And he's had a lot of Orthodox Jews show up to his readings (particularly in New York).
Shalom: "In London there's a much stronger anger against the specific teachings of Orthodoxy. This ancient regressive God-is-punishing-us-every-day. They're angry not because they're assimilating but because they're saying this is poisonous. This is why people are leaving.
"The people who are most upset [at Shalom's memoir] are the Reform. Reform rabbis get upset because they think they've got the answer. They think Reform was created to answer this. But I don't buy that either. My feeling is 'Thanks but I'm not in the market right now.'
"The Reform rabbis come out and they want to be your buddy. 'Hey, why don't you come over to my temple?'"
"I'm not looking to change anybody's mind."
Luke: "A lot of people in my Orthodox shul found it hilarious."
Shalom: "That's good news."
Luke: "Are women sending you naked pictures of themselves?"
Shalom: "No. I've got to write about something else. One or two but you can see it in their eyes that they're crazy."
"I had dreams of being a writer and looking out at the crowd and it being filled with hot black women. Instead it's filled with old Jewish ladies. Good one, God.
"What do I need to write about? Rap?"
"You bleed on the page... Honestly, I tell people about your blog because it makes me laugh. I'm not interested in the goings on in Jewish life but the moments when you lose it. The moments of humanity. A lot of blogs are like, 'Here's my personality and I stick to it.' I find it interesting."
Luke: "George Orwell said that the only parts of an autobiography that he believed were the shameful parts."
Shalom: "Yeah. And there are a lot of ways to do that. There's the kind of NPR way where you make fun of yourself. You're biggest fool in the room. I believe it letting it be angry. That's what's striking a chord with a lot of people who wouldn't otherwise come to readings... Frustration with the way life's gone. 'This isn't in my script.' That's honest.
"It's better than a joint. I was always going for that but this is better."
Luke: "You've given it up."
Shalom: "No. It's not working for me. It's having the opposite effect. It might just be because of touring. I've spoken to some people. They're big pot smokers and writers. And they say, 'Never on tour.' You're too anxious."
Shalom leaves with a woman for dinner in Silverlake.