10.3: excerpts from Shalom Auslander’s 2007 memoir, “Foreskin’s Lament”

“Shalom Auslander was raised with a terrified respect for God. Even as he grew up and was estranged from his community, his religion and its traditions, he could not find the path to a life where he didn’t struggle daily with the fear of God’s formidable wrath. Foreskin’s Lament reveals Auslander’s “painfully, cripplingly, incurably, miserably religious” youth in a strict, socially isolated Orthodox community, and recounts his rebellion and efforts to make a new life apart from it. His combination of unrelenting humor and anger renders a rich and fascinating portrait of a man grappling with his faith and family.

*   *   *

Copyright 2007 by Shalom Auslander. Published by Riverhead Trade Paperback.

Copyright 2007 by Shalom Auslander. Published by Riverhead Trade Paperback.

Friday afternoons, the yeshiva closed early so that we could all rush home to help our parents prepare for Shabbos, the Sabbath. Rabbi Kahn told us that the Sages tell us that the Torah tells us that the preparation for Sabbath is equal to the importance of Sabbath itself. Most of my preparations involved searching the house for kosher wine and pouring it down the toilet. It was a thankless job I admitted to nobody. 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. I’d search the pantry, I’d search the garage, I’d search my father’s closet. But I was only eight years old, and there was always a bottle of Kedem hiding somewhere I just hadn’t thought to check.

That night, my father, drunk on a bottle of blush Chablis that had gotten away, grabbed my older brother by his shirt collar and dragged him away from the Sabbath table. He dragged him all the way down the stairs to our bedroom in the basement and slammed the door shut. Even the silverware jumped.

—Who wants the last matzoh ball? my mother asked. —I made extra.

When my brother returned to the table, his nose was bleeding. My mother brought him a can of frozen orange juice to hold against the back of his neck, which was supposed to somehow stop the flow.

Rabbi Kahn taught us that it is prohibited to defrost frozen orange juice on Sabbath, because changing food from solid to liquid is considered cooking, and cooking is considered working, and even the Lord refrained from working on Sabbath. Of the thirty-nine categories of work that are prohibited on Sabbath, cooking is category 7. That’s why you’re not allowed to switch on lights—the electricity causes the filament to glow, which is considered burning, which is considered working (category 37).

My father came back to the table and drunkenly sang a few Sabbath songs, fudging the words and banging heavily on the table with his fist. I sat hunched over, absentmindedly drawing circles on the condensation that formed on the silver water pitcher. My father slapped my hand—Shabbos! he shouted (writing, category 5). Eventually, he stumbled off to his bedroom and fell asleep, snoring loudly as we sat in the dining room and picked glumly at our food.

*   *   *

Rabbi Blonsky was the rabbi of our local synagogue, a congregation of about fifty families, located in a converted cottage house on Carlton Road. Rabbi Blonsky was forty years old, and he worried a lot about the Jewish people. I was nine years old, and it was the Jewish people in my house I was worried about. A holy ark wasn’t going to help any of us.

I’d been worried for some time now. Two years ago, when I was seven, I worried so much I did Nixon. My father had attacked my brother with the dining room table, trapping him in the corner and shoving the table into my brother’s stomach until he couldn’t breathe.

—Please, said my mother.

Rabbi Kragoff taught us that when God told Noah that a great storm was coming, and commanded Noah to build the Ark, Noah refused. —Why should I have to save everyone? Noah asked. And so God took Noah, and He showed him how wicked the people in his generation had become, and how they had forgotten God, and how hatred had filled their hearts, and Noah realized that if he didn’t save them, nobody would.

Which is why I started doing Nixon.

My family, too, suffered storms, and hatred filled their hearts, and after watching my father trying to kill my

brother with the Shabbos table, I took upon myself the role of family barometer, the Noah of 7 Arrowhead Lane, forever testing the atmosphere for developing systems of tension and distress. Our home was a suburban, split-level hurricane alley, and when the clouds over our dining room grew heavy with bile and the bickering winds blew again across the table—Keep it up, my father would growl at my older brother, fists clenched beside his dinner plate, —see what it gets you—I would jump down from my chair and make my way to the foot of the table. Showtime.

—Gib akeek, my mother would say to my father. Take alook.

There I would turn, face my family, throw my arms out to the side and quickly draw them back against my ribs in a modified The Thinker position, right hand tucked beneath my left elbow, my left hand crooked underneath my chin, and I would walk to the head of the table, head down, shoulders hunched, shaking my head and saying —“I am not a thief, I am not a thief.”

—What on earth? my mother would exclaim with desperate laughter.

—He’s doing Richard Nixon, my brother would say.

—How does he know from Richard Nixon?

I didn’t know from Richard Nixon; I’d seen a man doing this on television a few days earlier. His name was Dan Aykroyd. I didn’t know who he was, either, but I knew that everyone had laughed. I thought I was doing Dan Aykroyd.

My father would try his best to remain angry, but a few more Nixons up and down the table, and he would smile, and the storm would pass, and the sky would begin to clear. Soon everyone at the table was laughing, and nobody could remember why they had almost killed each other.

—Meshuginah kid, my father would mutter.

—Who wants more chicken? my mother would ask.

—I am not a thief, I would say, —I am not a thief.

Everyone loves Nixon.

*   *   *

Eventually, even Nixon stopped working.

—But I don’t want the stupid soup, my brother would say.

—You’ll eat what your mother gives you, my father would grumble.

—Please, my mother would say to my brother, —just try a little.

—Give it to fatso, my brother would say, motioning toward my sister.

—You’ll eat it, my father would growl, —or you’ll wear it.

I’d leap off my dinner chair, throw my arms out to the side, and quickly draw them back in. Showtime.

—I am not a thief, I would say. —I am not—

—Sit your ass down, my father would grumble.

I needed new material.

I saw another man on the show with Dan Aykroyd. His name was Steve, and he had an arrow through his head. — I’m a wild and crazy guy, he said. —A wild and craaazy guy.

Everyone laughed.

I didn’t get it. Besides, even if I could figure out how he got the arrow through his head, bringing a weapon to our Sabbath table didn’t seem like a very good idea. The challah knife had me worried enough.

So I spilled things.

A cup of wine. A glass of soda. The water pitcher. The bottle of borscht.

—You watch your goddamn mouth, my father would say to my brother.

—Look who’s talking, my brother would answer.

—Please, my mother begged.

—Whoops! I would cry out, knocking over my glass.

My mother would run for the paper towels. My father would leap for the prayer books. My sister would dive for the kugel platter. Everyone was doing something—even if that something was yelling at me—but nobody was fighting.

It was a messy few months. Plates of gefilte fish. Trays of chicken. Noodle kugel platters, potato kugel platters, onion kugel platters. Bowls of carrot tzimmis. For a short while, it worked even better than Nixon.

—The tablecloth’s stained, grumbled my father.

—The kugel’s ruined, whined my mother.

Nobody’s bleeding, I thought.

Rabbi Napier told us that it took Noah 120 years to build his ark, and that all the while he would tell people that a flood was coming, that God was angry, but they wouldn’t repent, and they wouldn’t change their ways.

—Some people just can’t be saved, Noah said.

My mother began keeping all the platters away from me. No cups, no mugs, no goblets. Even my plate was paper.

—Klutz, she would say.

Some people just can’t be saved.

I finished my breakfast and walked into the garage just as my father was throwing another piece of lumber onto the scrap pile in the corner.

—Son of a, said my father. He was talking to his bar clamp.

He slid his yarmulke back onto the top of his head and wiped a heavy forearm across his furious brow.

—Hand me the try square, he said without turning around. —Today.

A try square is a triangular ruler with a square corner and a raised edge. It is used for measuring and marking trim lines on wood. I didn’t know what a cocksucker was.

—What’s a crowbar for? I asked.

This was my new tactic, now that my access to liquids was restricted and spilling no longer worked: random questions about woodworking, precision-timed to achieve maximum emotional distraction. God tended to fly off the handle when people in the Torah asked him questions, but I hoped things would be different with my father on Earth.

—For cracking you over the skull, he said. —Now hand me the try square.

It was no Nixon.

—Wracked, he said, throwing another wooden corpse to the ground. Boards that were wracked were twisted and couldn’t be used. He pulled on his shirt, grabbed his cigarettes, and refastened his yarmulke to his hair.

—WE’RE GOING TO RICKEL’S, he shouted up to my mother. —Let’s go, he then muttered to me.

I followed him out to the driveway, taking one last hopeful glance back at the house. Upstairs, at her bedroom window, my mother waved to me.

—Go, she silently mouthed. —Go.

My brother stood behind her, pointing at me and laughing. Suddenly I felt bad for my father. I wondered what it would be like if none of your sons wanted to go to Rickel’s with you. If your wife had to beg them to help you. If they secretly wished that you would get in your car and go to Rickel’s and never come back.

—Goddamnit, I thought.

And got in his car.

*   *   *


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