Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Shalom Auslander: Fruitfully Multiplying

Annoying, yes, these former true believers who decamp full of self-promotion to whatever the other side is, and although this article's no more than slumming with Critically Adored Former Orthodox Jew turned Hipster Novelist in his old neighborhood of Monsey-- the picture that you can see above that accompanies his Rosh Hashanah drive-by does look as if Stepford was overrun by Litvaks (who probably are too liberal on those suburban shetl cul-de-sacs), the smarmy Auslander did hit a few targets. Albeit, shooting fish in a barrel.

This reminds me, tangentially, of the current controversy in former WASP bastion Hancock Park as Orthodox families move in, houses inflate, and parking spaces diminish. One house on 3rd St. was torn down. It was 3,600 square feet. In its place, arose a synagogue, with a basement school and library, of 8,600 sq. ft. Down the same Third Street, another dwelling also morphed. I don't like such surreptitious methods of expansion, Genesis' injunction to be fruitful and multiply notwithstanding. We have zoning and we have compliance rules for all residents. Leaving one's "faith community" susceptible to charges of false representation certainly appears unwise. Eruv Yom Kippur or any other evening, the congregation (which basically claimed squatter's rights in a totally residential area and then charged community concerns about parking and crowds and noise-- complaints made by many who were Jewish themselves-- as bigoted) had agreed to observe an 8 p.m. curfew. They did not.

Charges of antisemitism predictably surfaced as the mayor's bureaucrats checked out the capacity crowd at a post-curfew Neilah service. Hizzoner, a few days later and needing even the conservative Jewish vote, had to leave the arms of his willing mistress (who failed to show up yesterday for her new demotion and will not be exiled to reporting live from the Inland Empire!) to eat humble challah before the rabbi and the cameras. Readers will know of my own contempt for high-density housing, and my own disdain for development. Historic houses-- by minimal California standards-- of HP deserve protection from whomever bullies them into McMansions. On the other hand, the area's councilman, no stranger to personal expansion himself Tom LaBonge, was quoted recently: "We will build on every lot in L.A. The only question is how." And, our local land-use lawyer turned councilman José Huizar has certainly kept whatever promises he made to his pals in the construction industry as our hills echo with hammers and the sound of earth being replaced with concrete. Bring on the urban heat island!

To me, it's not an issue of who's breeding, but the results of spawning: unsustainable family size. We have 20 million filling our region and more arrive every day. Our city does not need more SUVs, houses full of Big Wheels, or teeming plastic playsets. This is a residential, small-scale, quiet and high-priced district. Hancock Park does not resemble Crown Heights. How many of us does God want on a planet that already has too many grazers with big-box, super-sized appetites? Which we do have here abundantly in L.A., albeit we lack in most districts of our city an eruv or shtreimels along with the Big Wheels driven by young and old alike. Overcrowding, traffic, congestion, and property taxes: our city wants so much to be like Manhattan. Combine that with failing schools, graffiti, and pollution. Which characterized the same city so many flee today for the endless suburbs where the mayor's latest conquest refuses to work in. Villaraigosa, of course, supports such infill and density that will not ease the pressure of the teeming millions but will, we are told, shorten commutes since the congestion downtown will force Angelenos to live closer to our work out of sheer frustration.

Back to the author du jour--who left for Woodstock adjacent, tellingly. I read a Forward review of the novel and it made me no more want to read it-- the title's too arch for me-- than his Critically Adored debut, a short story collection. A previous New Yorker reader enjoyed Singer and still does Roth; today the magazine features Auslander as our designated teller of tales from yeshiva and minyan. [The L.A. Times Book Review on 10/12 had an incisive critic taking Auslander to task for half Catskills patter, half NPR "This American Life" whiny boomer shtick. It also wondered why he's so limited to an irrational idea of God as the only possibility, but this seems to overlook the problem of belief in the type of God you're imprinted with at such a young and impressionable age. A great phrase: Auslander, the reviewer demurred, by his capitulation to an shopworn tin Deity, fails to match "Jewish clown intellects" such as, inevitably, Woody Allen.]

Yes, Auslander's clever; such dissenting voices have been hailed by those outside ghetto walls in the Enlightement ever since Spinoza. To end on an encouraging note, I do applaud Auslander's rephrasing of Pascal's Wager. Rather than denying God and taking the easy way out, he rejects the idea of a Being who could be bothered with being troubled by treyf-- or foreskins.

Intriguing to think of Auslander chatting with Joyce. I segue with a snip from the first chapter of Joyce's "Ulysses"--The islanders, Mulligan said to Haines casually, speak frequently of the collector of prepuces.

Auslander's excerpts:

“The people who raised me will say I am not religious,” he writes. “They are mistaken.” He adds: “I am painfully, cripplingly, incurably, miserably religious, and I have watched lately, dumbfounded and distraught, as around the world, more and more people seem to be finding Gods, each more hateful and bloody than the next, as I’m doing my best to lose Him. I’m failing miserably.”

On the second day of the Rosh Hashana holiday last month, Mr. Auslander visited Monsey, a village in Rockland County, for the first time in years. Driving down the New York State Thruway from his new home near Woodstock, he worried that God might take this occasion to snare him in a fatal car wreck. He had even rented a sport utility vehicle, rather than risk being caught in the family wheels on a day when no observant Jew would even think of driving. “It was in the back of my mind the whole time,” he said. “That would be a great punch line — for me to die in Monsey just as the book is coming out. There is no sicker comic than God.”

He added: “I try sometimes to see myself through their eyes — as someone who has made a huge mistake. On the other hand, what if the big joke is that God has nothing to do with any of this, and doesn’t care about it at all?”

[Me again: He concludes with comments that make me wonder why so many ex-zealots to any cause always figure that they must totally renunciate their earlier allegiance. Why is it all or nothing for so many who had put their trust in a Being or Ideology? I suppose, lacking that fanatical or addictive tendency, I find this "love it or leave it" ultimatum, this absolute dichotomy, difficult to understand. Can we "get free" from God? Think of so many who reject religion but crave spirituality. I counter that the need for transcendence drives deep into our human core. And, I suppose, the emotional tug that pulls against the intellectual understanding that Auslander shares with Dawkins expresses this awkward psychomachia within Shalom. ]

“It’s ridiculous that I feel the way I do,” he said at the end of his drive in Monsey. “That I have this cartoonish view of God as someone who rewards and punishes. I feel like a fool when I read someone like Richard Dawkins,” he said, referring to the British atheist and evolutionary biologist. “But let’s trade childhoods.” Intellectually, he said, he understood Mr. Dawkins, but “emotionally I’m not there at all.”

He went on to compare himself, jokingly, to Moses. “There are two ways you can look at that story,” he said. “Moses makes one mistake and God shoots him in the head — he’ll never get to the Promised Land. But you can also say that he almost makes it and that his children will. I like finding the dark upside, and that’s why I ended the book with my son’s first birthday. I didn’t get free, but maybe he does.”

Man and God (and God’s Sick Punch Lines)
Published: October 1, 2007. (NY Times, of course.)
Shalom Auslander, the author of “Foreskin’s Lament,” believes in a God who is not pleased when someone writes an angry and very funny book about leaving the Orthodox Jewish community.


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