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Foreskin's Lament

by Shalom Auslander

This book is a shocker so if you don’t like strong language, drugs, blasphemy and laughing out loud on the tube, look away now.

Shalom Auslander was, he says, “raised like a veal” in an Orthodox Jewish town in New York State. He was also forbidden to eat veal, together with dairy, and if he did eat veal he was forbidden to eat dairy for at least six hours; having eaten dairy he was then forbidden to eat veal for at least three hours. And so it goes on. It was a life of ritual – and difference over one ritual in particular would eventually tear his family apart.

Shalom’s childhood is fraught. Not only is he terrified of God but there’s also his biological father to contend with. At only eight years of age Shalom would search the house to dispose of the kosher wine that sent his father into a rage and resulted in the pointless and brutal beatings of his brother. Meanwhile his subservient (and frankly, probably frightened) mother can only look meekly on. It’s hardly surprising that the teenage Shalom loses the plot and when he’s caught shoplifting his parents have had enough and send the delinquent to Israel to a yeshiva (seminary) for wayward boys. What did he learn? “Israelis sold pot, I was told, and Arabs sold hashish; I didn’t know what hope there could possibly be for the Middle East if they couldn’t even agree on how to get high.”

Framing the story is Auslander’s relationship with his soulmate, Orli, and the imminent birth of their first child – a boy. They make the decision to have the baby circumcised in a hospital by a doctor and not by a mohel in the Orthodox tradition, at huge cost to the relationship with their families. He writes: “Thousands of years ago, the Prophet Jeremiah, a terrified, half-mad old man genitally mutilated his son, hoping it would buy him some points with the Being he hoped was running the show. ... Six thousand years later, a father will not look his grandson in the face, and a mother and sister will defend such behaviour, because the child wasn’t mutilated in precisely the right fashion.”

Although sometimes extremely sad this is no misery memoir. Auslander takes his faith by the mazo balls and gives it a good going over, highlighting the often absurd and hypocritical nature of ritual and fundamentalism, particularly its effect on a child - but he doesn’t trounce it completely. In his words, he is still “painfully, cripplingly, incurably, miserably religious.”

This book provoked very strong feelings in our group so if your group enjoys a good debate then Foreskin’s Lament will provide you with plenty to discuss, but be prepared for possible strong disagreements!

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