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About the Author

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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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When God Goes Bad: Shalom Auslander’s Memoir of Rotten Religion

Here’s something I don’t like doing: Writing frankly about my own life. Here’s something I love doing: Reading other people write frankly about their lives. As a result, I love Shalom Auslander’s book, Foreskin’s Lament, in which he writes with a hilarious, tragic clarity about his life as a recovering Orthodox Jew.

Luckily, Auslander is funny — you may have heard him on This American Life — in a Woody Allen, everything’s-terrible-so-I’ll-laugh sort of way. And his stories are so poignant and full of surpressed violence that, as with Jeanette Wall’s amazing memoir, The Glass Castle, you wonder at moments if it can all be true. (Apparently, it is, or at least there have been no Running-with-Scissors or A-Million-Little-Pieces moments so far.)

Auslander opens the book telling stories from his childhood in a dysfunctional, alcoholic and relentlessly religious family in Monsey, NY. One of the saddest and best-told is about his father, a talented wood-worker whose practical skills are scorned by an Orthodox community that favors only rabbinical learning, building an ark — the ornate niche that holds the Torah scrolls — for the local synagogue. Auslander’s father labors in the garage, cursing his tools and everything else in his path, while the rest of the family cowers, hoping to avoid his rage. The image of the outwardly devout man in a sweaty undershirt, shouting “cocksucker” at a piece of wood while crafting a holy object for a house of worship — well, what better sums up the fact that religion often fails at its purpose of improving human life?

Auslander’s mother fares no better in his telling. She is a woman of little hope, reveling only in sighs and stories of other people’s hardships. When she suspects Shalom is guilty of breaking the Sabbath — something he does with equal measures of delight and dread, taking a taxi as a teenager to the Nanuet mall — she “goes Holocaust” on him, in Auslander’s words, accusing him of mocking, or even causing, the deaths of six million Jews in the gas chambers. Auslander’s descriptions of his later life, as a married father-to-be, centers in large part on how he can successfully keep his mother out of his life. He described her elsewhere as “a manipulative, self-centered corruption of the notion of a mother.”

Religion as a Nightmare

What’s fascinating, then, and satisfying to me as someone who wants privacy for myself and complete nakedness for others, is Auslander’s unsparing pen. Katherine Graham, the former Washington Post publisher, offered a frank portrait of her own emotionally deficient and somewhat neglectful parents in her memoir, but writes this was possible only after most important people in her life had died. Presumably, Auslander’s mother is still alive and sighing, perhaps now more heavily, in Monsey. His honesty — about not only his father’s physical abusiveness but also about, for example, discovering (and attempting to burn) his mother’s vibrator — is shocking at times. And always interesting.

The price of revealing yourself fully, of course, is the criticism of others. I shivered reading the comment of one reader, an apparently Orthodox Jew who wrote in a blog comment to Auslander:

You don’t want to be one of those writers who abandon Yiddishkeit in life and exploit it for their secular careers-those writers who spend their entire careers working out their identity on the page for prurient readers. We’re told not to make a crown of the Torah; here you are making a crown out of your frum background.


My main take away from Auslander’s frank memoir is that Alcoholic Father + Religion = Nightmare. Auslander experienced Judaism as a set of absurd, unbending and often inhumane rules, with guilt and shame taught at home instead of love or even normalcy. In another sadly funny passage, he talks about the idea of God as a father-figure: To Auslander as a child, this means God is an overweight man in a wife-beater, careening drunkenly around the house, looking for someone to hit.

Auslander describes himself to his wife, Orly, as spiritually abused. It’s probably a good idea for the rest of us — and especially people with positive views of religion — to remember that for people like Auslander, religion has been an instrument of torture. I think of friends from my childhood, once diffident Reform Jews, now enthusiastic followers of Orthodoxy, who see religious laws as beautiful, something that should be observed as much as possible. That’s the experience of people entering into religion freely. But for people like Auslander — or Irshad Manji or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, to name two Muslim women with terrible childhood stories of religion — who have no choice, whose experience of religion is linked to spiritual or physical brutality, religion can be a nightmare. No wonder he’s not smiling.

There Are 7 Responses So Far. »

  1. Thanks for an excellent review. You make some really good points about religion being a nightmare when there’s no choice involved. And I think a lot of people forget that it’s not just the non-Christian religions that have laws that can be used to abuse. I’ve been reading another really great memoir by Susanna Barlow called What Peace There May Be, in which she tells the story of her childhood growing up in a fundamentalist home filled with practicing polygamists. It’s a wonderful book that provides a lot of insight into the issue of polygamy and its effects on the children in those families. I think religion as a nightmare sums it up pretty well.

  2. I got a copy of this book for both me and my mom … i want to have a mother-daughter bookclub thing with it. i heard him interviewed a few times and he is hysterical!!!

  3. Enjoyed reading this and had read another review of it, too, that sparked my interest.

    But, “Alcoholic father + ANYTHING = Nightmare” in my opinion!

  4. Peace,

    The problems inherent in the God As Father Figure psychological bait-and-switch was something that I had unearthed in my soul-searching before entering Islam.

    For years, it had been a comfort to me- I looked to my Heavenly Father to stand in where my earthly father fell. Yet, on a deeper level, embedded into my psyche was a distrust of God as Father because I’d learned that fathers weren’t good guys. I am very grateful for uprooting that. Islam’s refusal to anthropomorphize God was thus a comfort to me.

    Having been raised Southern Baptist, I can relate to many of the things Auslander has to say about orthodoxy. I too rejected what had been handed to me- thinking I was an independent thinker…
    not so.
    I had to learn to actually see the texts FOR MYSELF and not accept others’ interpretations of them as The Way- whether that meant following their interpretations of them, or rebelling against them.

    I pray that Shalom (along with Hirshi Ali and her tribe) will be able to resolve the scars their families left behind… and realize that because abusers will use any means necessary to justify themselves and scapegoat others, does not mean its the religion’s fault. I hope that he can be his name.

    The exceptional gift that humans have that no other creature- even angels- have, is CHOICE. You’re spot on RW. If folks are not allowed to choose for themselves, it causes deep scars as it is an affront against their very humanity.

  5. Wow, very interesting - I hadn’t heard of him at all and very much want to now.

    I agree with a lot of what your (very intelligent) reader/commenters are saying as are you yourself; hurt and hate can come from so many places. As Jacqueline says, it seems sad that hate/hurt cloaked in religion can turn one against it forever. But by the same token, I’m not sure that, for everyone, forgiving their religions, “forgetting” the scars is the ideal either, even were it possible. Perhaps Shalom’s gift is in his humor, his secular writings, maybe he will find G-d that way, maybe he won’t, but surely he is serving himself and those who love him by healing/helping himself first.

    I just watched Sisters Magdalene about the Irish Catholic “laundries” for “wayward girls” and wow, it’s hard to imagine they could ever return to their faith or see it positively.

    One other tiny comment to Ruth. When you say “non-Christian” religions aren’t the only ones that have laws that can be used to abuse… in other words “Christian” ones do, too… I get your point, I do but… 1) most Jews don’t consider themselves Christian (so the Shalom example wouldn’t apply really 2) I think like other posters say the point is that it WASN’T the religious law that hurt Shalom but his family dynamic, alcoholism, coupled with orthodoxy more than any one rule of his religion.

    I grew up hearing a lot about the importance of moderation in all things. Guess I still think that’s true/wise.

  6. [...] be a negative force in the world — I would very much like to discuss with her, for example, Shalom Auslander’s memoir about the horrors of growing up in his own dysfunctional, frum family. Finally, part of the [...]

  7. Thanks a lot, Jacqueline! You made me pull my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition from it’s place next to the bookend on the top of my desk and naturally all the books came crashing down because of your anthropomorphic remark! Now my wife wants me to dust the whole desk “not the way you usually do it, dusting around things, but the way I do it, taking everything off it or out of the slots, blah,blah, blah ” I suppose it’s not all your fault. A portion of it may be due to the clash of my gentile, classical Irish bloodlines (the finest in the world) with the Hungarian Draculinian (out of Cleveland) temperment of my beloved wife. It’s not to say that I don’t wear the pants in the family…but she does tell me what pair to wear. Ah, this all started back in Medford, MA in 1929, but that’s another story.

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