Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament: Its Place in Jewish-American Literature and in Jewish Tradition” – A talk given for the Jewish Book Weekend, Felix Meritis, Amsterdam, 25 November 2007
By Paul Gabriner
Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening!
I have been invited by Crescas, which organizes a whole array of courses for Jewish adult education in the Netherlands, to say something about Jewish-American literature, the place that Shalom Auslander may be said to have in it, and, if possible, the place that he may be said to have in the Jewish tradition in general.
Those of you who have never heard of Crescas should surf to crescas.nl to find out what it may have to offer you. This little talk is just the tip of their very impressive iceberg!
Let’s begin by giving the concept of Jewish-American literature a short historical run-down. Before the Second World War, there were already a considerable number of significant Jewish authors writing in the United States. Examples are Abraham Cahan, one of the earliest, who wrote Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, that was published in 1896. (In 1975 it would be released as the film, Hester Street) and The Rise of David Levinsky, published in 1917; Henry Roth, who wrote Call it Sleep in 1934, Clifford Odets, an important dramatist of the 1930’s who wrote, among other plays, Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing!, considered by many to be his masterpiece, and Sweet Smell of Success.; and the wonderful satirist Nathaniel West, author of Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, a satire of Hollywood, whose early, tragic death in a car accident in the early 40’s deprived American literature of a true literary genius. To this brief list we also must not forget to add the enormous Jewish contribution to the texts of many great Broadway musicals, such as Porgy and Bess. Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart were all Jewish, while Oscar Hammerstein was half so.
But as many as these authors might have been, they never reached an international audience in their own day – they were Jewish authors writing in America, but there was not yet a context or tradition within which they were working, and taken as a whole, their collective oeuvre was missing what we might call the necessary “critical mass” that was needed to put Jewish-American literature as such on the American map.
World War Ii was the catalyst that changed all of that, together with the simple facts of Jewish immigrant history. Most of the Jewish immigrants, who had arrived in the United States just before or just after World War I, were Yiddish-speakers. Their children, born in the United States, or in Bellow’s case, in Canada, just after the war, say in 1918, would have come to maturity as English-speaking teenagers during the Depression years, and would have experienced the Second World War as young adults, some of them in active service. By the late 1940’s, they would have been roughly 30 years old.
It was from among this mass influx of Jewish immigrants that the missing critical mass finally came forth. The Jewish population was now large enough to make a visible impact on American society, and its writers combined the moral and humanistic values of their parents’ Jewishness with all of the idealism of America’s egalitarian democracy. Coming out of a tradition that was more than 5000 years old, they were uniquely suited to be more than just great story-tellers, but also teachers through whom the accumulated wisdom of the Jewish experience could help humanize an America they all believed in, but whose shortcomings were also very apparent from a Jewish point of view.
As of the end of World War II, literature written in America by American Jews very quickly came to dominate the whole of American, and even of world literature, such was its quality and quantity, in a way and to a degree that has never been seen before or since among any other minority group in any other nation. This state of affairs lasted well into the 1970’s.
Beginning in 1945 with Focus, Arthur Miller’s great novel about anti-Semitism in America, and continuing with his great plays All My Sons (1947), The Death of a Salesman (1949), which was a criticism of America’s popularity-cult and its worship of worldly success, then The Crucible (1953), an allegorical criticism of Senator McCarthy’s anti-communist witch-hunt) and A View from the Bridge(1955), Arthur Miller established an oeuvre that revolutionized the American theatre by writing a new kind of classical tragedy whose protagonists were no longer kings and princes, as Aristotle thought they had to be, but rather everyday people living in the modern world. Such a figure was his unforgettable creation, Willy Loman, of The Death of a Salesman, whose family name already suggests that his position in the world does not have to be high. Both this play and The Crucible, are already classics of the modern drama and have been translated into almost all of the world’s languages and produced in as many different countries.
Norman Mailer’s great war novel, The Naked and the Dead, "among one hundred best novels in the English language" according to the Modern Library, soon followed in 1948. Meanwhile, Saul Bellow, who had already written Dangling Man in 1944 and The Victim in 1947, was waiting in the wings with a series of audacious and brilliant novels all published in the 1950’s, that would eventually push him to the very top of American literary achievement: these were The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Seize the Day (1956) and Henderson the Rain King (1959). Much more would follow.
At the same time, Bernard Malamud, who would turn out to be a lot more Jewish in his theme and outlook than any of the others, came to prominence with a very original novel about American baseball, The Natural, published in 1952 and eventually made into a film starring Robert Redford. Subsequent novels, such as The Assistant (1957), a A New Life (1961) and The Fixer (1966) established him as a major figure in his own right, but it was really in the short story that his art reached the real acme of its perfection. Witness The Magic Barrel and Idiots First, two collections of short stories published in 1958 and 1963, respectively, some of which, such as his short, masterful allegory, “The Jewbird,” are clearly destined to become immortal in the canons of world literature.
A near contemporary of Malamud’s was the celebrated satirist, Joseph Heller, whose Catch-22, published in 1961, seemed to blend Franz Kafka’s penetrating vision of man’s fate in a paradoxical universe with a cast of characters that could have come right out of Sholom Alechem’s Anatevka, just as warmly and colorfully drawn, but all wearing American air force uniforms instead of Tevye’s more traditional garb.
While all of this was going on in the 1950’s and 60’s, a Jewish –American literature of an entirely different kind was being written by Isaac Bashevis Singer, who had come to New York in the mid-1930’s and had struggled unknown for years, until at last in the years following the war he began to gain steadily increasing fame with tales of the now-destroyed Eastern European Jewry into which he had been born and raised. Beginning with The Family Moskat (1950), and followed by Satan in Goray (1955), The Magician of Lublin (1960), The Slave (1962), The Manor (1967), and its sequel, The Estate, plus collections and collections of wonderful short stories, Singer came to stand next to Miller, Mailer, Bellow, Malamud and Heller as the sixth Jewish-American author whose work had come to totally dominate the American literary scene.
This was the context into which Philip Roth, born in 1933 in my own hometown of Newark, New Jersey, burst onto the scene in 1959 with his debunking novella of Jewish-American suburban mores, Goodbye, Columbus, followed ten years later by the sensational and scandalous Portnoy’s Complaint. All in all, Roth now has about 30 books to his credit, a good number of them highly-acclaimed literary masterpieces of great complexity, imagination and passion. At the age of 75, and still productive, he is generally considered today to be the dean of American literature in general, not only of Jewish-American literature.
I have said nothing about Jewish-American poets, such as Karl Shapiro, Stanley Kunitz, Delmore Schwartz, Howard Nemerov, Louis Simpson, Anthony Hecht, Philip Levine, Muriel Ruykeyzer, Babette Deutsch or Maxine Kumin. Who could possible count all the Guggenheim Fellowships, Bollingen Prizes for Poetry, Pulitzer Prizes, New York Drama Critic Awards, National Book Awards and even Nobel prizes for literature which all of them, the novelists, short story writers, dramatists and poets have collectively managed to garner for themselves in the 30 year period between 1945 and 1975? Is it any wonder that people began to say that American literature as such had disappeared, and that Jewish-American literature had come to take its place?
Of these giants, only Roth is still living, Mailer having died just two weeks ago, Bellow and Miller last year, but since they were in their prime, new generations of Jewish-American authors have come to take their place, such as David Mamet and Tony Kushner, both playwrights, American-Jewish women authors such as Cynthia Ozick, Tilly Olsen, Grace Paley and Francine Prose, a host of new novelists, among whom Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon, as well as authors of non-fictional works, such as Daniel Mendelsohn’s magnificent The Lost, a moving and poetic account of how he discovered what happened to his family in the Ukraine during the Holocaust, and now Shalom Auslander’s autobiographical memoir of his catastrophic orthodox upbringing, Foreskin’s Lament, probably more funny than painful for non-Jewish readers and those Jewish readers who don’t believe in God anyway, or who don’t take their religion very seriously, and probably more painful than funny for Jewish readers who dutifully don their tsfillin every morning, say their prayers three times a day, and busy themselves with davening and shuckeling as much as they can in shul every Saturday morning.
But very painful and very funny by turns, and sometimes together, it certainly is, a remarkable combination and, I may add, a remarkable achievement!
But where does Mr. Auslander fit into the whole scheme of Jewish-American literature? Of course, he is an “enfant terrible,” a rebel, and in this regard he closely resembles the early Philip Roth, but Roth was only critical of Jews, never of Judaism. In fact, one of Roth’s short stories, “Eli, the Fanatic,” is actually a defense of traditional Judaism as compared with its heavily-diluted American suburban equivalent.
Mr. Auslander, is more like a cross between the early Philip Roth simply because Roth also made the Jewish community very angry with him, and Woody Allen, whose cynical, biting irony, couched in the wisecracking New York vernacular of which he is such a master, is no respecter of any persons, gods or religions, and certainly not of Judaism and its God.
As an example, when the prophet Isaiah tells us that in the Messianic time the lion will stop being a predator, but will eat grass and then lie down peacefully with the lamb, Woody Allen mimics him by saying, “Sure, the lion is going to lie down with the lamb, but the lamb ain’t going to be sleeping so good!”
But Mr. Auslander’s roots are actually a lot older than either Philip Roth or Woody Allen. One of the curious things about Judaism, which make it so distinct, say, from Christianity, is that in Judaism Man is not only subordinate to God, but also his equal and his partner. Because Man is subordinate to God, we are supposed to believe in Him, which Mr. Auslander assures us that he does, but because Man is equal to God at the same time, he can also tell God to fuck off on occasion, or that he’s such a prick, something which Mr. Auslander also does, very frequently, in fact.
The problem is that Mr. Auslander is constantly afraid that God may find him a prick, too, and that, of course, if true, might entail very unpleasant consequences! This assumes, admittedly, that God actually notices Shalom Auslander and feels irritated by him, but it also assumes that the God of the Torah is basically judgmental and vengeful in character, and nothing else. Apparently, this was the God that Mr. Auslander’s orthodox teachers believed in and brainwashed him with.
I actually think they must have been hardcore Calvinist infiltrators in disguise, masquerading as orthodox rabbis In order to subvert Judaism from the inside. Real rabbis, raised from their infancy on a steady diet of gefilte fish and tsimmes, would know that the angry God who punishes so fearfully is strongly balanced by the merciful God who is forgiving and compassionate and who also gave us the recipe for chicken soup. They would know that according to our Sages, God’s mercy is even stronger than his judgment.
The God of the Torah does not need the Calvinist rabbis of Monsey, New York to tell Him who He is. He does that for them in the book of Exodus, when He describes himself for an inquiring Moses as a strict disciplinarian who at the same time is “merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and sin” (34:6-7).
It is too bad that Mr. Auslander’s teachers were themselves so badly educated in the religion they professed to teach him. Had they done their job properly, however, we would very likely be missing the book which is the subject of tonight’s interview!
Mr. Auslander, in fact, is a lot closer to the true Torah tradition than he probably believes himself, and a lot closer anyway than his teachers ever were! Wasn’t Abraham politely suggesting to God in the Torah that He, God, would be a prick if he destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah without bothering to discover and save the innocent people living there? And wasn’t Job also politely suggesting to God in the Torah that He, God, would also be a prick if He did not stop fucking around and justify or at least explain all the suffering He was allowing Job to suffer?
The only real difference between Abraham and Job on the one hand, and Mr. Auslander on the other, is that they are always very polite, being biblical figures, and never actually called God a prick by name, whereas Mr. Auslander, being a de-orthodoxized and badly traumatized New York Jew, anno 2007, is rather less polite than they were, only avoiding the use of the word prick, when, for variety’s sake, he feels compelled to use the word shmuck instead.
Let’s face it: you don’t have to agree with God in order to be Jewish; you don’t have to like him in order to be Jewish and you don’t even have to believe in him in order to be Jewish. You just have to stand on your own dignity, to kvetch in a certain Jewish kind of way, and to make sure that you’re being as entertaining as you can! Along the way, you try to tell a good story and to raise some interesting questions. Whichever way you cut the kreplach, on this interpretation Foreskin’s Lament is a very Jewish book!
With Abraham and Job so solidly behind him, Shalom Auslander doesn’t need either Philip Roth or Woody Allen. The tradition he is working in goes way over their heads, and is also a lot older. I would say about 5768 years old, to be exact!