When Shalom Auslander, a lapsed Orthodox Jew, came out with his wickedly funny memoir “Foreskin’s Lament” in 2007, he was often mischaracterized as a New Atheist. It was clear he shared a similar disdain for religion with atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, but he never declared himself a non-believer.
Rather, his memoir was a painfully comic testament to his faith, though with a twist: if God does exist, then he must be one cruel, uncaring and ruthless higher being. If God is so good, after all, how can he let death and destruction run rampant? We shouldn’t be praising this being, he concluded; we should be cursing him all the way back behind his pearly gates.
Now Auslander is back with a new book, “Hope: A Tragedy,” his first novel, and he has taken on a new enemy: history. Specifically, the Holocaust. “Hope: A Tragedy” tells the story of Solomon Kugel, a secular Jew who has fled the urban chaos of Brooklyn and escaped to a bucolic enclave upstate. He buys a cozy home with his wife and young son in the hope that all the troubles of the real world — his Holocaust-obsessed mother, his struggling writer sister, his whole Jewish past — will miraculously disappear.
Needless to say, they don’t. The problems remain and they strike the Kugels with a vengeance: Solomon discovers Anne Frank holed up in his attic, embittered, well over 80, and working on a new book. Kugel’s mother, who should have died weeks ago, returns to live with them, seeming to get a second wind when she meets the Holocaust author. And his sister keeps coming back, too, bringing along her sanguine Harvard professor husband, Pinkus Stephenor, a thinly guised send-up of the real Harvard scholar Steven Pinker.
“For me,” Auslander told The Jewish Week in an interview at a Soho hotel, “the story was not so much about the Holocaust but how we all struggle with our history … If [‘Foreskin’s Lament’] was about how you deal with an a–hole God,” he continued, “then this book is about how you deal with the viciousness of humanity once he’s removed. The Holocaust is the big one that I had to deal with as a Jew, but it could have been any horrific event in the past.”
Auslander litters his prose like he does his speech: with mountains of expletives. But it is easy to mistake the salty speech for inarticulateness. That’s hardly the case. Like his novel, Auslander offers highly informed responses to life’s most imponderable questions. “Aristotle said that humans are the only species that laughs,” Auslander said, when discussing man’s inhumanity to man. “Well, we’re also the only species that created gas chambers. How do we deal with that?”
Auslander has a theory about how we deal with that particular piece of the past: we don’t stop talking about it. “To quote my Anne Frank,” he said, “There’s a difference between never forgetting and never shutting the f— up.”
Kugel’s mother represents this theory; she is so obsessed with the Holocaust that she actually believes she’s a survivor (she isn’t). Even when Pinkus Stephenor offers empirical evidence that, in fact, violent deaths have actually decreased over the last several centuries — a real argument made by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinkus in his current best-seller “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” — she cannot accept it.
“Nobody wants to hear that answer, which is fascinating in its own right,” Pinkus Stephenor says in the novel. “But compared to life in the past — the everyday brutality and violence, the endless conflicts and bloodshed — well, the Holocaust wasn’t so bad.”
All this is couched as an elaborate parody, but Auslander liked the intellectual dissonance Pinkus’ character offered. “It was a perspective that was needed,” he said. “Pinkus’ whole point is that, even if we know, mathematically, that things are better, we still can’t accept that. We want it to be bad.”
Auslander also has little trouble breeching taboos. He found the very notion that people might consider his Holocaust conceit offensive, well, offensive.
“What’s offensive? That I call Anne Frank a whore?” he said, referring to one of the many racy epithets he calls the diarist in the novel. “Holocaust denial is offensive. Patting ourselves, Israel, on the back because we finally recognized the Armenian genocide is offensive. I personally find Tim Tebow thanking God after every touchdown offensive. Is that going to stop him from doing it? No. And I’m not going to stop doing what I’m doing.”
Geoff Kloske, Auslander’s editor at Riverhead, which has published all his books, including his first, “Beware of God: Stories,” in 2005, has long known that Auslander courts detractors. “There will always be some readers who will never be comfortable with his work,” Kloske said. “You know it’s part of his distinctive voice. But I really want people to understand and appreciate his work … the most rewarding thing is when someone laughs and understands rather than gets offended.”
Auslander grew up in an Orthodox home in upstate Monsey. He graduated from a religious school, and then dropped out of Queens College after a few weeks. He immediately moved to Manhattan and starting working as a writer at an advertising agency. He liked writing, and the money was good, but he didn’t consider writing for himself until years later. His shrink suggested it, he said.
All along he was reading voraciously — Beckett, O’Connor, Roth, Celine — many of whom shared his darkly comic sensibility. As he began funneling their sensibilities through his own voice, story ideas began to emerge. He approached Kloske with an idea for a satire of the Bible — a sort of tabloid Torah — which eventually turned into “Beware of God,” a collection of short stories.
After Auslander appeared on Ira Glass’ NPR show, “This American Life,” to promote the book, Glass asked him back to contribute occasional on-air stories. Quickly, Auslander became part of the literary establishment. The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, asked him to contribute pieces two years ago, then came The New York Times, The Guardian and GQ. But, Auslander, says, “I’m the last person in the world I thought this would happen to. I just don’t give a f—.”
As for his beef with the Holocaust, he says his problem stems from childhood. He remembers being shown footage of death camp survivors from the time he was about seven, with Holocaust education being hammered down his throat as incessantly as was the fear of God. The implicit lesson he took from it was: “The world hates you, so don’t leave the fold,” he said. He sees the Holocaust as (like God) another control mechanism meant to keep Jews together.
But when asked if his truculent attitude toward Judaism was a rejection of the whole culture, he was ready with a response: “I continue to be more observant than most secular Jews I know. Because I struggle with it, and because I think about it a lot more.” His problem is not with the Jewish religion or culture per se, only with how they’ve been hijacked by many Jewish groups — be they secular right-wing Zionists or Orthodox Jews.
“The Chosen People? Probably the worst idea that any marketer every came up with,” he said. “I see my Jewish tradition as a history of general s— stirrers. Beginning with Abraham smashing idols, to Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen, there’s a long line of people who said, What if? Why not? They were the What-if’ers, the questioners, the s— stirrers. I like that tradition.”
Auslander, now 40, stopped being traditionally observant in his mid-20s. He married a secular Jewish woman and, like his fictional character Kugel, moved to upstate New York several years ago. He is raising his two children — Paix and Lux (French for “peace” and Latin for “light,” respectively) — with a Jewish identity, but he refused to have them circumcised by a mohel.
Still, he wonders what he’ll teach them about Judaism once they begin to ask questions about God or the Holocaust, having so thoroughly skewered the issues in his books. “I’ve written [a book about the Holocaust] now, and I still don’t know what the f— I’m going to tell them. I still haven’t figured it out.”
To be fair, “Hope: A Tragedy” does offers moments of repose, and some resolution, amid all the creative destruction. While the book is an extended rebuke of the idea of hope — a sort of secular god, in Auslander’s telling — he realizes that it’s something we cannot wish away.
“Some people will rewrite the past as better than it was, some people will rewrite it as worse” says one of Auslander’s shrewder characters, a real estate broker named Eve. “But one way or the other, I promise you, fiction will return, if only because the nonfiction is too damned much to bear.”