I've finally found it!

Since I started working at the Chabad House about a year ago, I've been desperately seeking information. Chabad.org is a good resource, and I frequently read the women's section. I also found an online FAQ about Chassidism that was pretty helpful. I even read a bunch of Chaim Potok novels... but they're novels, and so were more focused on the story than on the actual practice of Chassidic Judaism (which is as it should be, I think). What I was really lacking was a good perspective on the other side of Chassidism.  

I once heard a story on NPR (I'm an NPR junky) about Rabbis in Chassidic yeshivas (schools) molesting young boys, and the story delved briefly into the idea of the insular quality of these communities - how you can't rat out a Rabbi, even if he does something awful, and if you do, you're going to be shunned by the community, even if they all know that what this Rabbi did was totally wrong.  It was interesting, but, like Catholicism, I know that Rabbis molestering little boys isn't a norm, and shouldn't be considered as such.

Well, after a year of searching, I've finally found a critical perspective on Chassidism (or ultra-orthodoxy, as some people call it).  I know that this is also somewhat of an extreme example, but I really wanted an in-depth testimony from someone who had defected from Chassidism.  And I found it.  Boy did I find it.  And best of all, I found it while listening to my "This American Life" podcast (see?  NPR junky).  The author's name is Shalom Auslander, and his memoir is called Foreskin's Lament.  Amazing, right?  How provocative!  I'm about a hundred pages in, and already Auslander has ranted and raved about how God will punish him by killing his family and friends in horrific and ironic ways - "That would be so God," is his common refrain.  Already, he has called God a "fucking, fucking fuck."  THIS is what I needed.

I don't know why, but I really crave multiple perspectives on something.  I tend to wallow around in the opinions that are more closely aligned with mine, but that's just human nature.  I had a suspicion that Chassidism could be really restrictive and unfair.  I mean, I just can't imagine that EVERYONE who grew up in a Chassidic household would come of age as good upstanding Jews.  I mean, for Christ's sake, they still practice arranged marriages, women all have to wear skirts and "modest" tops covering most of their arms and their necks.  Married women are not allowed to show their hair, and usually wear wigs.  While I'm sure that many people are truly devout and accept that this is what they are supposed to do, and even derive joy from fulfilling these Mitzvahs.  But the fact is that they are a very small percentage of the population, and popular culture seeps in, whether they want it to or not.  I had to work the door at a big Purim event, and I saw kids coming in dressed up as lions or, as one kid proudly announced/screamed at Jon, "I'M A DUCK!!"  But there were also kids there dressed up as Shrek, or as a rappers, or as "teenagers," as one girl told me.  You can't hide from the prevailing culture, and it's going to work its way in.  How could it be that all of these kids are perfectly fine with all of the stuff they have to do, and all of the stuff they aren't allowed to do, when they are very much aware that there are other people out there who do it?

So other than the countless pages of blasphemy, Foreskin's Lament is actually very well written.  Told in snapshots from the author's younger years, it reads somewhat like a David Sedaris book - which is totally fine by me.  His is a format that I revel in, and I'm glad to see that other authors are really exploring the potential greatness of the memoir.  But Auslander is so... angry.  He is one pissed off fucker.  And it's entertaining on one level, but is so essential on another.

Also, Auslander utilizes what I'll call "refrains" throughout the book - little phrases he hits upon, drills into your head, and then brings them up later, completely out of context, to remind you that this is a man talking to you about the past, not a little boy's experience in present-tense.  The past is gone.  Buried.  And the refrains remind you of the Shalom Auslander of now, who is telling you a story about then.  It's really an ingenious little device that I've seen authors use, but never to the extend that Auslander does.  "Fuck" becomes a comforting mantra that you return to again and again, to assure the reader - "Don't worry.  I'm still pissed off about it."

So yes, I'd highly recommend it.  Even if you're not interested in Chassidism, and just want an interesting and entertaining read, you should pick it up.

AND, since I hate hard covers, it just recently came out in paperback - good news for the cheapskate in us all.  :)


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