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Thursday, 28 October 2010

Behave Yourself – Or Be Cut Off From Among Your People

A Scene From the film version of ‘Bee Season’






A week in which Jane Austen has been arraigned for poor spelling must be one when Booker prize winner, Howard Jacobson has decided he’s no longer her male Jewish alter-ego!

It’s also one in which I’ve resolved that visual onomatopoeia is an inherently  Jewish, if not universally writerly  affliction.

Woe was me! As I wrote some months ago, I’ve long since seen  ‘angry’ as furious from way down a page – and read the Hebrew aleph bet family of ‘Pehs’ as unashamed bullies from the moment cheder (children’s religious classes) began.

For years I thought I was alone until I read the likes of Israel’s Amos Oz (his memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness) and the USA’s Myla Goldberg (Bee Season), who also see the universe of the alphabet – no matter the language - as a live world of its own.

But today I’m writing about Goldberg’s Bee Season in tandem with Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament. I do so – ridiculous though it may appear – because I view them as almost the same book, describing life in disintegrating American Jewish homes – be they across the religious divide.Myla.Goldberg

First came Goldberg’s story of familial dysfunction – US Conservative style - starring a nine-year-old girl with a gift for nothing much bar spelling. As the quite entertaining but preciously over-written tale unfolds, we’re expected to believe, not only in the rather two-dimensional characters’ inner lives but that an otherwise averagely intelligent kid suddenly develops a knack for comprehending the knottiest sections of  Kabbalistic meditation as delineated by the Mediaeval Spanish false messiah,  Rabbi Avraham Abulafia.

This was followed by Shalom Auslander’s memoir of being dragged up in a horribly abusive household in the ultra Orthodox enclave of Monsey, New York.

His book has been billed by a thousand important literary folk as one of the funniest on the planet. I managed an occasional wintery smirk but found it a largely  dark and terrible work by a man who fairly revels in his loathing his Jewish self.

In lighter vein it reminds me of the  Chassidic tale of the village hothead who decides he doesn't believe in God.  He spends a Sabbath eve with the local atheist and is bewildered to see him kindle the Sabbath lights, make the blessing over  the traditional loaves and wine and perform  other customary devotions. At the end of night all becomes clear when his host lights his cigar from the Sabbath candles - thereby desecrating what he had made holy.

Shalom.Auslander_thumb7 That aside, Auslander soon learned to to escape into a world of his own where in the manner of Shalom Aleichem's folk hero, Tevye the Milkman, he started to argue with heaven. But there are no sentimental, treacly fairy-tales in Auslander’s vile world where the coarsest, nastiest terminology is used with unvarying and unrelenting enthusiasm, debasing the coinage of hate and making it worthless.

I, too dislike much of the ultra-Orthodox world with a passion, knowing its citizens to be no better than the rest of us – and no better than they ought to be – despite their delusions of sanctified grandeur and quite despicable hauteur. I also know many Jews of varying degrees of religiosity to be uncomfortable with their Jewishness which is often portrayed by shallow and disgusting outbursts against Israel.

Auslander on ‘Foreskin’s Lament’

Auslander sees irony in the meaning of his forename ‘Shalom’ – ‘peace’. As is remarked in a podcast review of another of his autobiographical stories, The Blessing Bee (sic!):

"Shalom" has multiple linguistic uses in Hebrew. It is a sort of Hebraic "Aloha", because it can be as used as a greeting and as a parting, as a hello and a goodbye. It is a fitting name for someone who is torn between opposing impulses …".

Curiously, he avoids translating his surname. ‘Auslander’ means ‘outsider’. As a writer he’ll always be one and if, as everyone else claims, he’s a good one – then he’ll bear testimony to that in his work.


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