Ernest Hemingway reportedly said "the first draft of anything is shit."
Maybe that's why Shalom Auslander's Foreskin"s Lament is so damn good. Auslander threw out his early work over and over out of fear that the powerful subject of his writing would seek revenge against his loved ones.
He had reason to be concerned. The individual in question was extremely powerful and well connected. The guy knew where Auslander lived. He had a history of violent and capricious acts.
God, Auslander knew, is capable of anything.
Shalom Auslander grew up in a religious community so strict that when he goes from the "ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva of Spring Valley to the ordinarily Orthodox Torah Academy," he is convinced that God is going kill every single one of his classmates. Some of his rabbis wore grey fedoras instead of black ones. Some didn't wear any fedoras. Girls frolicked with boys. The boys tucked their tzitzis into their pants instead of let them hang out as God commanded.
--Dead, I thought to myself. --They're all dead. - Foreskin's Lament
But soon, temptation strikes him in the form of Slim Jims. The ultimate in non-kosher food. From there, he violates the Sabbath, knowing that by doing so, as the Sages say, he is violating all 613 commandments.
But as he speeds towards the mall on the Sabbath, he remembers that observing the Sabbath is like observing all 613 commandments. "That wasn't just a loophole--it was a license to violate."
His peace of mind is shortlived, however, as he remembers that God could simply kill him while he was in the red from having violated.
If I died after a "violate" weekend--plans to "observe" next Sabbath or not--I died with 613 big ones. Past due.
--But I was going to observe next weekend, I'd plead.
God would shrug and sigh. -I understand, He would say, --but we're trying to run a business here . . . -Foreskin's Lament
When he met Orli, a charming fellow refugee from Orthodoxy, Auslander was sure that God immediately rubbed his hands together, Mr. Burns style, and started plotting miserable outcomes.
Orli gets pregnant. Due to a mix-up at the ob-gyn's office the couple is told that the baby has Down's Syndrome. Auslander rushes to Orli's side, but not before attempting to mollify God by deleting all of his stories from his laptop.
"Orli's mother is Egyptian. Her father is Bukharan. Their house is in London, but for most of the year they reside in the sixteenth century." - Foreskin's Lament
We're lucky that Auslander eventually overcame his fear, producing this stunning memoir. Foreskin's Lament is funny, poignant and written in crisp and clear prose. It'll put a smile on your face and a snicker in your smirk.
Auslander, living in Israel, imagines describing a failed drug deal with some Arabs to his mother.
"Arab guy sold me camel shit, Mom, you believe that? We can't even deal drugs with one another. Was Camp David completely for naught?" - Foreskin's Lament
As I write this, I am sitting in an Atlanta Bread Company restaurant? café? with my sister, Alice. I am flipping through the book and from time to time being consumed with paraoxyms of laughter. The kind of laughter where you want desperately to stop laughing but your best efforts just reduce it to a snort. Where as you try and tamp it down, it only takes a quizzical look from someone sitting near you to push you over the top.
Alice stares over her glasses at me. "What IS that book?" I read her the passage in which Auslander describes the good natured suggestion from his friend Craig that he get his son circumcised so the kid will look like him.
I sighed and shook my head. The fact was, I said to Craig, if I really wanted to ease my son's insecurities by making his penis look like mine, I wasn't going to have to just circumcise him; I was going to have to shave his balls and give him a Prince Albert.
Craig looked at me for a moment before checking his watch.
--I've got a ten o'clock, he said.
A word of warning, however. Auslander's writing starts like any addiction: "sure," you say, "I can quit any time." But before too long, you're hooked. And like any other great, underappreciated cultural artifact: The Wire, Oakland's The Coup, David Rees' Get Your War On, soon you're obsessively hawking it to all of your friends. (Auslander has been on Fresh Air with Terri Gross and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, so "discovering" him is a little like "discovering America.") On the bright side, unless you're actually in a yeshiva right now, Foreskin's Lament is probably going to be more socially acceptable than crack and at least as socially acceptable as a Slim Jim. And more satisfying.
Thanks to Alice for the title.