Shalom Auslander’s Mother Is Yeshiva University Chancellor Norman Lamm’s Sister

Shalom Auslander (website, my interview) writes in his forthcoming memoir Foreskin’s Lament:

My mother’s brother was a famous rabbi. His name was Uncle Nathan [Norman Lamm, former president of Yeshiva University]. Her other brother was also a famous rabbi. His name was Uncle Mendel [Maurice Lamm]. Uncle Nathan lived in New York, and Uncle Mendel lived in Los Angeles. They both had the same goatees. They both wrote books. Uncle Nathan was also a doctor. Sometimes he called himself Rabbi Doctor and sometimes he called himself Doctor Rabbi. Uncle Mendel wasn’t a doctor, but he was the rabbi of a very big synagogue in Los Angeles [Beth Jacob].

–You know who goes to my synagogue? he would say when he came to visit. — Alan Alda.

–Wow! my mother would say…

–Big donor, my uncle would say.

From Publisher’s Weekly: "Auslander, a magazine writer, describes his Orthodox Jewish upbringing as theological abuse in this sardonic, twitchy memoir that waits for the other shoe to drop from on high. The title refers to his agitation over whether to circumcise his soon to be born son, yet another Jewish ritual stirring confusion and fear in his soul. Flitting haphazardly between expectant-father neuroses in Woodstock, N.Y., and childhood neuroses in Monsey, N.Y., Auslander labors mightily to channel Philip Roth with cutting, comically anxious spiels lamenting his claustrophobic house, off-kilter family and the temptations of all things nonkosher, from shiksas to Slim Jims. The irony of his name, Shalom (Hebrew for peace), isn’t lost on him, a tormented soul gripped with dread, fending off an alcoholic, abusive father while imagining his heavenly one as a menacing, mocking, inescapable presence. Fond of tormenting himself with worst-case scenarios, he concludes, That would be so God. Like Roth’s Portnoy, he commits minor acts of rebellion and awaits his punishment with youthful literal-mindedness. But this memoir is too wonky to engage the reader’s sympathy or cut free Auslander’s persona from the swath of stereotype—and he can’t sublimate his rage into the cultural mischief that brightens Roth’s oeuvre. That said, a surprisingly poignant ending awaits readers."

I found Auslander’s memoir identical in tone to his debut collection of short stories, Beware of God. Both books are filled with rage against God, Judaism and Shalom’s alcoholic father.

Most people seem to relate to God as they relate to their father. This cliche holds true for Auslander. Both his dad and his God appear in his books as sadistic, blood-thirsty psychopaths.

I have one major question about Shalom: Is his rage for real or is just a literary device?

Ron Stiskin responds to an interview Auslander did with Sarah Ivry of Nextbook: "Shalom: I ordered a copy of Beware of God and pre-ordered a copy of your memoir as well. We have a lot in common, as I mentioned in my post on your "Too Much Information" page. I grew up in Monsey at about the same time you did. I went to HIROC and got stuck with Rabbi Glatzer, just as you did. (And I admired Lintz Rivera, just as you did!) I would like to respond to those who accuse Shalom of blaspheming by blaming God for problems actually caused by his dysfunctional family and his emotional immaturity. Don’t you wish. My own experience parallels his. Sure, my family was dysfunctional in some respects – whose isn’t? But my Jewish education was far more traumatic, and ultimately far more damaging. Did Shalom and I just get a rotten apple for a teacher? Yes, we did, but that doesn’t mean that the Jewish day school system as a whole is hunky-dory. Our school, HIROC, was full of teachers who were themselves deeply traumatized, dysfunctional, abusive, and obviously abnormal to even the most casual observer. To put such people in charge of young children is criminal. It’s hard to believe that such things didn’t go on in other Jewish day schools as well. To this day, walking into a shul is difficult for me, as is seeing men in Chasidic dress. I remind myself that that was then, and this is now, but it doesn’t make it any easier. Meanwhile, cases of abuse in Jewish day schools continue to surface. What does the existence of so many "bad apples" – who, in some cases, were enabled for years by the schools they worked for – say about the system of Jewish education in general? Jewish education cannot be separated from Jewish belief or observance. If you’re concerned about these things – or just care about children – take a hard look at Jewish education."

I was wondering if Auslander used real names in his memoir. This comment indicates that he did.

Larry Yudelson posts: "The New Yorker excerpt, to my surprise, used fictionalized names for the Orthodox shuls and rabbis who were briefly mentioned in passing."

Here’s a picture of the Lintz Rivera that young Shalom wanted so badly. She’s now a teacher in New Orleans.

Author Marty Beckerman responds to an Auslander column on Nextbook: "The difference between a rottweiler and a Jewish mother: the rottweiler lets go eventually."

Andrew Silow-Carroll writes in the New Jersey Jewish News:

 

But if there is a cultural war among Jews, Auslander is a reluctant recruit. As he explained to me in an e-mail exchange, the essay is representative only of his own experiences. “The piece, as well as the forthcoming book it is taken from, is not a judgment on Judaism: it is the story of one person, raised under the thumb of a violent God, seeking some peace,” he wrote.

The essay, he wrote, was not a satire, as I had suggested in my end of the exchange. “It’s not a gag or a joke or a bit. It happened. It was felt. One man is raised with religion and finds it, later in his life, a comfort. Another — me, for example — finds it has left me paranoid, fearful, and ashamed. There’s a whole section in the bookstore for the first guy, not many for the second.”

It’s too early to tell if someone will read Auslander’s memoir, titled Foreskin’s Lament, and accuse him of doing the anti-Semites’ dirty work or of feeding what Jewish organizations insist is a “new anti-Semitism.” More likely, critics will take a clue from Shalit, casting the novel as a symptom of a divide between secular and observant Jews, as opposed to Jews and gentiles.

Auslander began his schooling at the super-Orthodox Yeshiva of Spring Valley in Monsey. He hated it.

"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."

One day in fourth grade, Avrumi Mendlowitz jumped on top of Shalom and squeezed his balls. For a long time.

Shalom’s uncle Norman Lamm had a man at his apartment who opened the door for you, another man who asked your name before phoning upstairs, and another man who ran the elevator. Rabbi Lamm also had a maid, a limo and a driver. They were all black.

Norman Lamm, who liked to smoke cigars, had a three-story apartment with marble floors.

Rebbitzen Lamm said to Shalom’s mom that Harrison Ford lived across the way.

In the den sat a grand piano that nobody played and the settee held a pile of books on art that nobody read.

Norman Lamm liked to boast.

"You know who was here yesterday?" he said. "Herman Wouk."

One day Shalom consoled Avrumi on his low test score. Shalom was rewarded by getting pushed to the ground and having his balls squeezed. For a long time.

For fifth grade, Shalom moved to Torah Academy, which was Modern Orthodox. There were girls at the school and they smelt great.

One day while playing in the woods behind his home, Shalom’s life changed forever.

He found a pile of pornographic magazines. After getting jabbed by a stick, one magazine opened up to a picture of a Chinese lady lying naked on her back. The caption read, "Bang my honeypot."

Another day, Shalom found a pile of new magazines. He brought them (Oui, Juggs, Forum, etc) home and studied them like Torah. A few days later, he burned them.

One day, Shalom reached behind his brother’s books and found Puritan magazine. He wondered "what was ‘cum,’ and why did the woman on the cover want me to shoot it all over her face?"

Eventually, Shalom found his dad’s porn magazines and his mother’s vibrators. Shalom burned them. His dad didn’t appreciate it.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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