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Why God terrifies Shalom Auslander

Author and radio personality Shalom Auslander tells EW.com how his lifelong dysfunctional relationship with the Almighty informed his new memoir, ”Foreskin’s Lament”

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Shalom Auslander

Shalom Auslander’s memoir Foreskin’s Lament went on sale last week — you may have heard about it already. Auslander, a contributor to public radio’s This American Life, was featured in EW’s recent Fall Books Preview, and then our critic Jennifer Reese weighed in approvingly, declaring that beneath Auslander’s ”extremely funny shtick is one ferociously angry book.”

Why all the fuss? Poised as a potential breakout for the 37-year-old author, Lament describes his long, tortured relationship with God, who started freaking out Auslander — brought up as an Orthodox Jew — at a very young age. Auslander called in from his home in Woodstock, N.Y., to explain just what it is about a religious upbringing that can make a person crazy.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why risk it? If you think God has it out for you, why write about that and put it on paper?
SHALOM AUSLANDER:
I really had a hard time with that question for a long time. I had a hard time in terms of thinking what might happen to me if I wrote it, but I also had a hard time just dealing with the information, trying to cull through a whole life and figure out what it is and why I’m writing this book and why this memoir and not another one. It was hard and there were a lot of times I didn’t want to do it. So, privately, my deal with God at the beginning here was to take it easy. [I’d say to God], ”I’m not going to publish it — go start a war somewhere, I’m just going to sit here and type this out, try to make sense of my life a little bit. I’m definitely, definitely not going to publish it.”

Why did you want to write it in the first place?
I didn’t want to write it in the first place.

Fair enough.
[Laughs] As part of trying to get the word out about my short story collection, [2005’s] Beware of God, I wrote something for This American Life. And they really only do nonfiction. So I wrote one, and it seemed to go over well, and I thought it was fun to do, and after a couple of those, the suggestion came along: Why don’t we turn these into a book?

What do your feelings about God go back to? What makes you so afraid of him?
Growing up, I was told lots of scary things about Him! ”Hi, kids, there’s a guy, and if you piss Him off, He’s gonna flood the world. Now who wants to take a nap?” That’s day one. Later, a lot of kids realize that’s not necessarily the real deal, but I didn’t go through that. I just believed it, very intently. And in fact, I’ve often said to people who’ve e-mailed me, or come to readings with a rabbinical chip on their shoulder of some kind, who are sort of accusing me, in a weird way, of believing everything they told me. I’m always saying to whoever asks, ”Look, what could your beef with me possibly be? That I listened? That I paid attention? If you’re saying to me now as an adult, ‘Oh yeah, we were just telling you that as a kid — it wasn’t meant to be believed,’ well, that’s what kids do, they believe the adults around them.” So it never went away.

NEXT PAGE: ”I know full well that with the first fever my son has, or the flat tire I woke to this morning, there’s still that thought in my head: He’s messing with me.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You describe being ”theologically abused” in the book.
SHALOM AUSLANDER:
I do think that’s an accurate way of saying it. There’s a lot of this going on right now. The term ”child abuse” is so heavy and so loaded, I’m not sure that I’d cart anyone away, but I do think that it’s reasonable to raise that expression, because I do think to implant that [God] character in a child’s head, that they can’t get rid of, and teach them about it, for 18 or 19 or 20 years is absolutely abusive. Because it is terrible pain. At that age, those kinds of things are poisonous.

Where do you stand now? Do you still believe in God and still have problems with that?
Well, writing the book helped sort some of it out. It was very difficult in the beginning to write, but to put some of those things down on paper was a huge relief. At first it was a huge embarrassment, because I’d write that I was afraid that God was going to kill my parents if I ate pig. And then you say to yourself, That’s ridiculous. You can’t possibly admit that. And then you realize that it’s quite funny. And then you realize there’s also a sadness to it. So bringing all that up made me re-examine a lot of the things in my life. I still do. I’m having right now a moment of calm where perhaps bad things aren’t happening to me, and I’m not that obsessed with it, but I know full well that with the first fever my son has, or the flat tire I woke to this morning, there’s still that thought in my head: He’s messing with me.

Flat tire this morning?
I had a flat tire yesterday morning. I didn’t think anything about God at that point, but then this morning my car battery was dead. I thought, I’m 30 days from publication; this is when He starts to get pissed.

I’m wondering if you feel that you might be blessed? That things could be good, and He’s actually watching out for you?
It is a thought. It’s something I’ve thought about enough to start writing about. But my gut instinct — and this is part of what growing up with the Old Testament was about — is that every good story is followed by an incredibly bad story. Just when you think they’re going to make it…ohhh, they’re enslaved. Just when they get out…ohhh, there’s some other tribe that wants to kill them. There’s real pain there. So I could look at how there’s a lot of good stuff happening to me — I should feel blessed, God’s a decent guy. But the training is: everything’s going pretty good, I love my son, I’ve got a great marriage — and October’s going to be a nightmare. What are we looking at — Holocaust in December, is that what’s scheduled? Because you look at the cycle, that’s what seems to be the case.

Are you going to write a sequel someday?
I have no idea. It depends on how pissed off God gets!