Word magic from Shalom Auslander

Browsing books at random in Galway, I picked up Shalom Auslander’s novel Hope: A Tragedy because the title caught my eye, and I bought it based on a cursory scan of its contents and reviews. The author’s name was also interesting to me, and the book turned out to be the most entertaining thing I had read in months.

More recently I read Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir, which was the funniest thing I’d read since his novel. Not that it’s all jokes – the books are very well written, and work on many levels – but if you like dark and irreverent humour suffused with theological anxiety, there’s a good chance you’ll like his work.

Here’s an excerpt from Foreskin’s Lament on the religious implications of his name. I’ve selected it not for its humour (though it has some of that), but because of its linguistic content. I think word magic is subtler and more pervasive than we often suppose, though what follows is an extreme and obvious case of it:

In the third grade, Rabbi Kahn told me my name was one of God’s seventy-two names, and he forbade me from ever writing it in full. We wrote primarily in Hebrew and Yiddish, so anything on which I wrote my name — God’s name — became instantly holy: tests, book reports, Highlights for Kids — consequently, they could never be mistreated. It was forbidden to let them touch the floor, it was forbidden to throw them away, it was forbidden to place other papers on top of them.

—Name of the Creator! Rabbi Kahn would shout in horror, pointing at the McGraw-Hill American History lying anti-Semitically on top of my Talmud test. —Name of the Creator!

Then I would have to leave the classroom, go upstairs, and walk all the way to the bais midrash (study hall), where they kept a brown cardboard box reserved for holy pages without a home: torn prayer books, old Haggadahs, crumbling Talmuds, and the suddenly holy “What I Did This Summer” by God Auslander.

“Words are holy,” as the narrator subsequently notes. Another passage revisits the complications of being called Shalom, through an awkward conversation with his mother, but I’ll leave that for anyone interested in reading the book. For some background see Auslander’s interview at Bookslut, or visit his website for essays and more.

6 Responses to Word magic from Shalom Auslander

  1. Peter William Carrillo says:

    I’ve actually heard of this before. There’s an interesting webpage about the Cairo Genizah (right here: http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/collections/genizah ) which was basically a place where people would put any piece of paper that had something similar to God’s name on it. It basically ended up being something like a giant trash can, but it has old letters, papers, receipts even. All kinds of interesting things. Talk about words being magical, right?

  2. Mise says:

    It’s a fine piece for sure: the ridiculousness of the situation so briefly encapsulated in “suddenly holy” and the perfectly measured cadence leading, as though it could never end otherwise, to “God Auslander”. On my reading list the memoir goes.

  3. Stan says:

    Peter: Interesting link, thank you. In a related vein, the book has a report from the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem where people write notes to God and embed them in the ancient cracks. For Auslander, of course, it doesn’t work out as planned, but he has fun trying to figure out the rules of operation.

    Mise: His control of comic timing, staging and vocabulary are exemplary. I think you’ll get a great kick out of the book.

  4. I’m Jewish and have a yeshiva background, so I totally understand what he’s talking about…it really is funny. I will be online at the library website looking to pull his stuff.
    Slightly off-topic, just to mention the yeshiva thing; most Jews have a regular English name and also have a Hebrew name, mostly for religious purposes. In Shalom’s case, they are one and the same. Anyway, there was a girl in my class all thru school (elem/HS), such a sweet, intelligent, non-troublemaking sort, the kind everyone liked whether they were the ‘in’ group or the nerds, the teachers loved her, you know the kind. Her Hebrew name was a hyphenated combination of a Yiddish name and a Hebrew name, Eeta-Tova, and there was one teacher in HS who made a damn fuss and embarrassed the hell out of the poor girl, telling her he would not allow her to use that name in class, he refused to call her by that name since “Eeta” wasn’t technically Hebrew, so he insisted on calling her Tova. Like everyone else, she was sometimes in a zone somewhere (“What will I do on my summer vacation?”), and he would be calling her, “Tova, Tova…” and she didn’t realize he was talking to her, because her name wasn’t Tova LOL. Sheesh! Thanks for the memories.

  5. Garrett Wollman says:

    I have heard this very same story before, in audio form, but I don’t recall where; it may have been from a book-tour interview on the radio, or perhaps The Moth if he ever appeared there.

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