A Laugh-Out-Loud Quarrel With God

When Shalom Auslander was a kid, the man of the house was a lunatic. He was big and scary and mean. At any second he could fly off the handle, but you never knew what had set him off. He was very unreasonable. He might even kill you. His name was God.

But Auslander is done hiding from him. And he's struck back with "Foreskin's Lament," his blasphemous and funny new memoir of growing up in an ultra-Orthodox community in upstate New York. Though the writer ultimately flees the faith, he still hasn't escaped his tormentor. In fact, he's expecting a thunderbolt to singe him any minute now. As he writes in the book, "I believe in God. It's been a real problem for me."

A lot of memoirists look back through a lens of recovery. Auslander isn't there yet, and his enduring PTSD makes for good joke fodder. At one point he notices that when his work on a short story collection about God is going well, attacks in Israel increase. He meets his friend Craig at a bar and whispers to him, "He's going to kill me." Craig tells him he's full of himself, and Auslander worries that now his friend is doomed. "We shouldn't be discussing this here," says Auslander. It's unusual to let out an audible laugh when reading a book. It wasn't while I was reading this book.

Following in that great Jewish tradition, the man has issues, and you can see why. As a kid he was told about a man named Moses who wandered the desert for 40 years only to be killed by God right before he reached the Promised Land. Why? Because Moses had hit a rock once decades before. Auslander also learned that all the souls of every sperm he ever wasted would chase him for eternity. (He learned this as he was entering puberty.) At home there was no refuge. There he learned that if his father had been drinking he might throw hot chicken soup in your face. And for all this Auslander would give thanks. Or else.

Auslander started rebelling early on, playing a one-sided game of chicken with God. He became addicted to less and less kosher fixes. First he partook of that most ungodly of foods, the Slim Jim. Soon he was stashing Nacho Cheese Doritos in his underwear drawer and stealing Twixes from the grocery store. Next he found porn. He actually found it. By a rock behind his house. "The Sages tell us that the Torah tells that every day, God tests us," he writes. "Sometimes the test is a slice of nonkosher pizza. Sometimes the test is evil gossip. And sometimes the test is a magazine called 'Shaved Orientals'."

Auslander's at his best telling stories about his kosher jailhouse. Like the day in third grade when he made it to the final round of the "Blessing Bee." Called on to recite the blessing for an ice cream cone, he froze and blurted out, "No blessing." Why no blessing, the rabbi wanted to know. Well, because blessings are prohibited in a few instances, including when a male or a female's genitals are showing, or when you're in the presence of` feces. And so, twirling his tzitzis, Auslander explained slowly, nervously, that the room smelled like doody. Even as the rabbi yanked him out of the room, Auslander didn't give up: "Wait! There's a naked girl in the room!"

Though Auslander mostly careens between funny and poignant, he does make pit stops at tedious, especially during the interwoven contemporary narrative. Over and over again he predicts that God will come get him. But his understanding of God remains childlike throughout. Up to the end he believes he'll find his son dead in his crib. As Woody Allen's box office receipts show, even the highest-quality angsting gets old. And it's a little hard to believe that, as an adult, Auslander still imagines a big bearded dude in the clouds getting revenge because the writer called him a prick. And you want to say to Auslander: then quit calling him a prick.

But it's still the most fun you'll ever have reading about a little kid's struggle under the thumb of a madman. Especially because you're not going to get it the way Auslander will.