Beware of God by Shalom Auslander

Shalom Auslander is a former Orthodox Jew who writes in a deeply satirical and enraged voice with Judaism and modern society as his primary targets. These comical tales brim with irreverence towards God, poking fun at the triviality and pettiness of Jewish theological arguments, and bemoaning the materialism of modern society.

The opening story in this collection of short stories is “The War of the Bernsteins” about a Jewish husband and wife fighting an internal war over the direction of their lives and their immortal souls. Bernstein lives his life worrying every moment about adhering to Jewish law and avoiding sin so he can receive a better reward in the world to come, while his young wife frustrated that he won’t take her out to the movies or have sex with her spontaneously in the kitchen or basically enjoy life attempts to sabotage him and cause him to sin unwillingly (such as setting his alarm clock on Sabbath so he has to use electronics and violate the prohibition of doing work on Sabbath). Auslander shows how a person can become so obsessed with rewards and rules that they fail to enjoy this life; he also shows through the character of the wife that one can get so caught up in revenge and trying to sabotage such people that they, too, can miss out on life. It’s a good story, but it isn’t a perfect story. One detail that bothered me was why the wife would have married a guy like Bernstein in the first place. Auslander could’ve solved this problem by adding a single paragraph explaining what initially attracted her to him. This missing detail crucially affected the verisimilitude of the tale.

“Bobo the Self-Hating Chimp” is a story about a monkey named Bobo living in the zoo that suddenly gains self-awareness. With this newfound self-awareness comes the conception of God, death, shame, and guilt. Bobo ponders the painful existence of the other brainless monkeys in his cage and starts creating paintings, first with his own feces and then with paint provided by the zookeepers who want to make an extra buck; these paintings are “scathingly satirical attacks on chimpanzee culture and primate mores.” He sleeps with Esmerelda, another monkey, and apologizes for objectifying her. Unable to cope with being the only monkey with self-awareness, he commits suicide. This is a powerful and funny story dealing allegorically with human existence. The ideas of God, death, shame, and guilt (as well as art) are an inherent part of being human, but by contrasting it with unthinking monkeys who lack conscious self-awareness it raises the troubling question about whether our prized rationality and self-awareness that define us as a species are all its cracked up to be or if it would be better to simply be mindless animals who function on pure instinct. At the same time, the mindless apes live beside their own filth, sleep around with the female apes in casual meaningless sex, especially as means for the alpha male ape to dominate his pack and show who is top dog, which are also behaviors human beings engage in despite our supposed rationality. This adds another layer of criticism about the human condition by suggesting supposedly rational human beings have the worst of both worlds: we have all the animalistic behaviors of the monkeys that Bobo loathes as primitive and debasing to his species, while our rational self-awareness leads to guilt and shame about those behaviors and fear of death. This story introduces the theme of capitalist exploitation that will reappear in other stories.  The zookeepers sell Bobo’s art for large prices on the market.

“Somebody Up There Likes You” is a story about a secular guy who survives a car crash and reevaluates his nonobservant stance on religion after being convinced God spared him. It turns out God, Satan, and Death were actually trying to kill him, but modern technology saved him. The three travel down to Earth to personally take him out, while engaging in a discussion about the best way to kill somebody in a modern society. The story takes the interesting position that God is powerless to change the course of events (a unique perspective on the idea of omniscience), but the ending suggests God sometimes feel guilty over having to kill people as part of the universal plan.

“Heimish Knows All” is a story about an Orthodox kid who feels guilty about masturbating  and his talking dog who personifies his guilt. The dog follows him around and the kid is afraid the talking dog will tell everybody in the community about his “filthy” habit. It’s not clear from the story that anyone but the kid can hear the dog talk, hence why the dog literally personifies his guilt. It’s also not one of the stronger stories; it doesn’t have much of an internal character arc and the idea really doesn’t go anywhere all that interesting.

“Holocaust Tips For Kids” is probably the most experimental and emotionally powerful story in the entire collection. The story is told through snippets of random facts about the Holocaust, random Talmud story about Jewish suffering and anti-Semitism throughout history, and short lists and paragraphs in a which a kid learning all this information on Holocaust Remembrance Day tries to process it, telling us what he would do to survive if the Nazis ever came to his house (such as fill a tennis ball full of matches and use it as a makeshift bomb). On the surface, the story seemingly criticizes the way the Holocaust is taught to Jewish kids as snippets of random images (terrifying the crap out of them and making them frightened, even ashamed, of being Jewish), but I think there is a darker, more disturbing side to this story. There are snippets from various rabbis explaining Jewish suffering as a product of abandoning faith and failing to properly follow the Torah; there is even a snippet from one Rabbi who blames secular Jews for the Holocaust, suggesting it was a punishment from God for abandoning their faith.  However, the story is complicated even further as we get snippets from American newspapers and polls at the time of the Holocaust telling us people believed the concentration camps to be mere rumors and that 24 percent of Americans considered the Jews to be a threat in contrast to 9 percent for Japanese and 6 percent for the Germans. We get lines telling us that “Muslims say that Jews are the sons of dogs and pigs.” We get quotes of modern day anti-Semitic graffiti in France, Germany, and America to remind us these aren’t sentiment from some bygone day. Auslander shows how a young kid psychologically tries to process Jewish history and suffering, how there are unhealthy ways that Jews glorify their own historical suffering, while simultaneously recognizing that suffering is real and anti-Semitism is a real still-existing phenomenon that Jews should be genuinely worried about. It’s an extremely depressing story, but a powerful one.

“Waiting for Joe” is a story about hamsters who believe their owner is God. One is more religious than the other, while the other is a bit more skeptical and secular. This was a funny story, watching the hamsters pray for food and how they interpret everyday things in a religious light.

“Startling Revelations from the Lost Book of Stan” is a story about a man named Stan who runs to Israel after losing his job and struggling with financial debt. In Israel, he finds an ancient book in a cave that turns out to be the oldest Bible ever found, but more importantly it contains the words at the beginning, “The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to person living or dead is entirely coincidental.” He brings it around to various scholars, experts, and even the Pope who authenticate the book as real, but then start beating him up whenever he suggests they should go public with the book. The implication is their entire careers would be destroyed if it came out the Bible was just fiction, hence it’s a story about capitalist exploitation of the religious industry.  The ideas in the story are interesting, but it doesn’t quite work in my opinion. Stan initially tries to sell it to a couple of scholars, but they don’t want anything to do with it and want to keep it quiet. Then he places it on ebay for sale and suddenly all these religious leaders and scholars magically start paying attention to him? Wouldn’t it have made more sense for the scholars and religious groups that initially ignored him to continue ignoring him? How did this become a popular issue in the media if no one was sponsoring it in the first place? One fix to this story might have been the national media picking it up first (i.e. man claims to put up the oldest bible ever on ebay), then the religious leaders, but that intermediate step is missing from the story.

“One Death to Go” is a story about Kabbalists who claim the world will end if a thousand more unnatural deaths (murders) occur in the world. This knowledge spreads, but of course, it does nothing to mitigate people murdering and killing each other.

“The Metamorphosis” is a story about a Jewish man who wakes up to find his body transformed into a muscular hairy goy. He attempts to go to Shul, but the rabbis won’t let him, believing he is unclean. The three rabbis get into an intricate debate, quoting various lines to prove his point. Then the same happens with his Yeshiva friends, etc. The story is hilarious in the way it points out the trivial debates and interpretations Jews can have over scripture.

“Prophet’s Dilemma” is a story about a man who hears the voice of God, commanding him to build an ark and sacrifice animals in the backyard.

“They’re All the Same” is a story about an advertising company trying to impress their second biggest client, God.

“Smite the Heathens, Charlie Brown” is another experimental story in which a religious war breaks out between the characters of the Charlie Brown comic strip.

“God is a Big Happy Chicken” is a story in which a Jewish man dies only to discover God is a big chicken and that he has wasted his time keeping Kosher and following the rules of the Bible. He returns back to earth to tell his family they are wasting their time following all these restrictive rules, only to realize the beauty of cultural traditions and customs for their own sake.

“It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Supremey” is a story about man who reads Kaballah for dummies in order to create golem to do the housework. As he gives the rules and procedures for doing the housework, the two golem ultimately start debating about different interpretations of their creator’s instructions, and the argument eventually turns violent.

While some of these stories are clever and somewhat amusing as critiques of religion and sometimes modern society more generally, many of them feel a bit preachy and in your face with their messages. However, the far worse problem is that many of these stories have plots that lack credibility (such as why the couple even got married in the first place in “The War of the Bernsteins” or scholars going on national television to discredit Stan when it would’ve made far more sense for the establishment to simply ignore him).

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2 thoughts on “Beware of God by Shalom Auslander

  1. Ah, now I know why his name looks familiar ……. from his book Foreskin’s Lament, which I’ve never read but have seen in passing.

    It’s interesting that you label him as preachy, as the very thing he seems to be criticizing, perhaps he has taken up himself, only from a different outlook. I do like critical books but not when they only consist of attacks on a view or ideas that the author disagrees with. Does Auslander give any indication what he does believe or places value on? Because harsh criticism, without any alternatives or different viewpoints to support it, tend to lessen the author’s credibility. What do you think? How would my comments apply to Auslander?

    Honestly, I kind of feel sorry for his family.

    Oh, and great review again …. of course! 🙂

    • Many of the stories sacrifice credibility as a story to make a point. It’s like he’s forcing his plot and characters to react a certain way in order to add one more joke. The characters seem to always be in service to the idea rather than the plot lines stemming organically from the characters. They have no real depth, except as fanatical believers or as Orthodox Jews; they feel very superficial in many ways. All of this leads to the stories feeling preachy.

      Nevertheless, some of the stories are legitimately funny, some of the ways he satirizes religion are clever, and some of the stories do pack an emotional punch. Basically there are things to like, but there are some legitimate problems in his writing.

      There is a cynical tone throughout many of the stories; very few end with an upbeat resolution. So maybe he believes in cynicism?

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