To Snip or Not to Snip—That’s Shalom’s Question

By Shalom Auslander
Riverhead, 310 pages, $24.95

It’s a shame that the author of Foreskin’s Lament, Shalom Auslander, a fallen Orthodox Jew turned wry humorist, has never been introduced to Paul Fleiss. Fellow hebe, Hollywood pediatrician to the stars and father of noted madam Heidi, Mr. Fleiss is an impassioned anti-circumcision activist.

The horny Mr. Auslander (“they are just my type,” he writes, early Woody Allen-esquely, of some female passers-by, “in that they are almost naked and wearing high heels”) has written a memoir centering on his pangs over getting his newborn boy’s member snipped. Had he been ushered as an expectant parent into Mr. Fleiss’ wood-paneled offices in Los Feliz, he would’ve received a long lecture about the barbaric nature of this traditional Semitic rite, buttressed by a navy blue pamphlet bearing the Star of David. Reams more material for our man’s comic agony!

It’s O.K., though: Mr. Auslander has ample material as it is. He was raised—or perhaps yanked upward into adolescence is a better way to describe it—by an abusive father and a devout but passive mother in the grim-seeming and largely Hasidic hamlet of Monsey, N.Y. From an early age, young Shalom bucked tradition: doing Dan Aykroyd impressions to defuse family rows, indulging in clandestine Slim Jims (which are, like, totally trayf) at the local swimming pool, and sneaking off in the back seat of a taxicab to the mall in Nanuet—“a city of Sodom”—on the Sabbath.

He commences shoplifting. At first his yarmulke helps him elude suspicion, but eventually he’s busted with a backpack stuffed with $500 worth of clothing swiped from Macy’s. He’s sentenced to community service, a portion of which he elects to serve in Israel.

Smoking pot and gorging on porn—perfectly normal behavior for your average American young adult male, not so much for those in payess. “This is not Sabbath’s Theater—it is Shalom’s Buddy Booth” despairs Mr. Auslander of his baser appetites, defying those who might compare him to Philip Roth. (I’m feeling more a raunchy Malamud.) On rounding the bases sexually: “For me, first was anal.”

Foreskin’s Lament toggles back and forth between such tender reminiscence—often hilarious—and the author’s somewhat more “eh” adult emotional conflict. He’s now ma rried to a loving English-Jewish woman named Orli, as doubting as he. Gladly estranged from both their families, they live in Woodstock, N.Y. Stripped of all the accoutrements of Orthodoxy (judging from the book-jacket photo, these days he resembles a football commentator), he’s cutting a nice swath on the NPR-BBC-New Yorker circuit.

And yet he lives with the constant specter of a merciless Almighty Being, whom he alternately mocks, venerates, bargains with: “My relationship with God has been an endless cycle not of the celebrated ‘faith followed by doubt,’” as Mr. Auslander puts it, “but of appeasement followed by revolt; placation followed by indifference; please, please, please, followed by fuck it, fuck You, fuck off.”

Of course God here is a stand-in for “Dad,” and to quote Dr. Seuss, Dad is surely “sad. Very, very sad.”

Never mind the pediatrician—it’s an issue for Mr. Auslander’s analyst.


Alexandra Jacobs is editor-at-large at The Observer.

To Snip or Not to Snip—That’s Shalom’s Question