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Weekend in Brooklyn

Getting to know Shalom Auslander

The other night we listened again to one of my favorite episodes of This American Life: My Big Break, which features one good story (about a comedy duo who went on the Ed Sullivan show the same night as the Beatles), one very good story (about two young men who went to Baghdad during the war to try to make their mark) and one absolutely fantastic story (Shalom Auslander's "The Blessing Bee.")

Here's how the TAL website describes Auslander's story:

Shalom Auslander reads his true story, "The Blessing Bee." It's about the time when, as a third-grader at an Orthodox Jewish school, Shalom saw his chance to both make his mom proud, and push his drunken father out of the picture. Part of his scheme involved winning the school's bee on the complicated Hebrew blessings you say before eating certain foods. The other part of the scheme: sinning.

The piece first aired in January of 2006. I remember listening to it in the garage. We were refinishing a piece of furniture, and the garage was cold, and I had been tempted to come inside where it was warm, but the story was so good -- so dark, and poignant, that I laughed out loud -- that I couldn't stop listening.

The first time I heard it, I hadn't yet studied tractate Brakhot, in the mishna, which addresses (among other things) the question of which blessings to recite over which foods. (The piece is funny without that context, but it's even funnier with it.) I also didn't catch the name of the piece's author, or if I did, I didn't recognize it.

I do now; he writes regularly for Nextbook. (His column is called First Person Ambivalent -- go ahead, click on the link, read a few.) So when we listened to the piece the other night on the iPod, I made a mental note to look up whether he'd written, you know, books. It turns out "The Blessing Bee" will appear in his forthcoming memoir, Foreskin's Lament -- and another short piece from that memoir is online at his website, in short film form.

Listening to him, I'm simultaneously amused and pained. That he is deeply steeped in Judaism is manifestly obvious. So are the wounds with which his Orthodox upbringing left him. He talks some about those in an interview with Nextbook, titled Dogs and Monsters:

Nextbook:You grew up in a very Orthodox home. What made you bolt?

Auslander: I don't know, except I'm glad it happened. I don't think I'd be alive if it didn't, because it made me that unhappy. Maybe that's what it takes. But I don't think you can compartmentalize it. It wasn't religion that made me leave, and it wasn't just family. It was a combination of being in something of a stereotypical but also rather dysfunctional family combined with a religion, or a form of a religion, that allowed for nothing. And in a community that had no windows. There were a lot of conditions for love and affection and continued membership, And they were serious, and they were ludicrous. It was, "You don't wear a yarmulke, you can get out. You intermarry, we sit Shiva for you. You eat non-kosher and our children are not allowed to hang out with you."

(I'm reminded of what Rabbi David Ingber said when I interviewed him for that profile in Zeek, about how the nature of Orthodoxy models a dysfunctional family structure...)

Auslander talks, in the Nextbook interview, about how he believes in God, because he can't not -- and about how problematic that belief is for him, because "that picture of a frowning angry God is something I'll never get rid of, no matter how hard I try." That's clear from the Foreskin's Lament video, too, which pushes my buttons something fierce. The piece makes me laugh, and it also makes me really angry. Not at Auslander; at the theology of a vengeful God that has done so much damage. It's so far from my own understanding of who and what God is, and calls us to be.

Tough stuff to face, especially as we nudge our way toward the Days of Awe. But I've ordered Auslander's collection of short stories, and pre-ordered his memoir (due out during Sukkot; I expect it to arrive on Simchat Torah.) Because he's a good writer, and I want to support his work. Because his is a complicated and challenging Jewish voice I want to hear more of. And because I need to be able to confront the stuff in my tradition that makes me wince, alongside the stuff that fills me with joy.

Besides, the guy's really good.

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