Civilization and Its Discontented
Exactly who heeded the call of Abraham? Book touring makes a writer wonder.
I am in Chicago, at the Hopleaf Bar on North Clark Street, one of the last stops on the U.S. portion of my book tour. What happens as I am on my way out of the bar has happened before.
“Excuse me,” a young woman calls. In other cities, it is a young man, or an old man, or an old woman.
“Yes?” I answer.
“I was at your reading.”
For a moment I flatter myself and assume she wants a book signed.
“And I have to say,” she continues.
This is the first bad sign. People who say things they “have” to say usually say those things with their hands pressed firmly over their ears.
“I have to say that I think it’s so sad that you say these things about Judaism.”
“Sad for me,” I ask, “or sad for Judaism?”
“Sad for Judaism,” she says.
“Oh,” I answer.
“Judaism has wonderful things to say,” she says. “We all have bad things in our lives,” she says, “it’s terrible that you blame Judaism.”
“Have you read the book?” I ask.
She flutters her eyelashes self-righteously.
“I don’t want to read the book,” she says.
“So you haven’t even read the book?”
“I don’t want to read the book.”
I explain as best I can, and with as little physical violence as I can, that I don’t actually attack Judaism in the book. That in the first place the book is about one person’s experience, which is what the word “memoir” on the cover means, and that in the second place, I don’t attack any ism, that I don’t give a damn about isms, that isms are beside the point. That I recount a series of things I was taught—horrible things, cruel things, destructive things, things that are not dissimilar to the things taught, horror of horrors, in the name of Christ or Allah. I suggest that if she believes those things are wrong, that if she believes that her ism is not about those things, then perhaps her anger would be better directed at the people who teach such things in the name of her ism rather than at the person who was taught them, and I suggest, again, somewhat radically, that she read the book to find that out for herself. But she flutters her eyes again, says “I don’t want to read the book,” turns, heads back to her snickering friends, pats herself on the back and feels like a hero.
Two nights ago, in San Francisco, a man approached me (again at the exit, again after the reading, again away from the crowd) and told me that his wife thought I was “terrible.” I asked why. He told me she was Orthodox. He told me she loved Judaism. He told me she said that I “threw the baby out with the bathwater.” I asked him if she had read the book. He said that she hadn’t. I asked why. “She doesn’t want to read the book.”
(She is, to add a certain chill to the tale, a practicing psychiatrist. Physician, shrink thyself.
“But I don’t want to read The Interpretation of Dreams.”
I have visited, in over the course of the last two months, more than a dozen cities. In just about every one of these cities, there have been one or two people who say this same thing to me, always away from the crowd, and always after the reading when most of the other audience members have gone; I can almost admire their stubborn ignorance, almost respect the courage of their uninformed convictions, but I know that if the situation were reversed—if I were the one criticizing books by Moses that I’d never read—they’d be the first to wave their hands and ignore me.
“But I’ve read your books,” I want to say.
I am told I should laugh them off, and that is fine advice, but it would be easier for me to laugh these few people off if there hadn’t been so many people inside the auditoriums, inside the bookstores, inside the bars, who have come over to me—Jews, yes, but Catholics and Mormons, too, Calvinists and Baptists and Lutherans—and who have said, with a heartbreaking mixture of shame and fear and undeserved self-loathing, that they feel the same way as I do. That they had been taught horrible things in the name of their religions, and that, when they dug deeper than any complacent believer ever will in order to find the strength to question, they were condemned. And here’s the really bad news, for those religions keeping track of memberships: These people all wanted to believe. They wanted to stay. Most are not waiting for the next Richard Dawkins book. Most are looking for an answer, they just don’t like the answer they’ve been given. So the next time you get together at your local God Clubhouse to boo-hoo your declining numbers, you might want to take a pause from blaming the members who are leaving and aim your righteous indignation instead at the ones who gave them reason to go.
“And Abraham awoke . . . and he left.“
I make this point in my book, but since so many heroically refuse to read the book, I’ll make it again here.
“And he left.”
That’s our hero, folks. Abraham. Father of our religion, and a couple of other ones in the news lately, too. And that is, according to many, his defining moment. The moment he up and left. It happens, like it or not, to be a moment of questioning. To be a moment of criticism. Like it or not, the guy the prayer book mentions a dozen times a day woke up one morning, scratched his chest, peered out the tent window and said, “Uummm, fuck this.” He looked around, disliked what he saw, and he left. Not a bad lesson for the kiddies, though I’ll stick to teaching my son about Yossarian—same story, fewer scenes of ritual child sacrifice. But here’s the catch, God-of-Abraham-dammit: It’s either admirable or it ain’t. You can’t teach children to admire Abe’s courage, and then spank them when they muster it up themselves. I am certain, were Abraham in Monsey today, or in Rome, or in Kabul, he would awake one morning, rise up, and say, “Fuck this” all over again. And I am equally certain that thousands of years ago, as Abraham slung his backpack over his shoulder, grabbed his Lonely Planet Guide to the Land Which God Will Show You, and headed out of town, he passed a young woman by the local watering hole, a young woman who came over to him, fluttered her eyelashes, and said, “I think it’s wrong.”
“But do you know why I’m leaving?” Abraham asked.
“I don’t want to know why you’re leaving.”
“You don’t know why I’m leaving?”
“I don’t want to know.”
I am not comparing myself to Abraham; I’m not even comparing myself to Yossarian. I’m saying I listened to my rabbis. I listened when they told me how admirable this action of Abraham’s was. I listened when they told me how brave Abraham was, how courageous he was. I also listened when they told me God that was quick to anger, and that God flooded the world, and that He razed cities, and that He hung liars by their tongues and adulterers by their genitals and that He boiled onanists in their own sperm and that He killed first-borns. And that loving God was swell, but let’s not get too granola here—fearing him was where it was at.
So sue me for getting As.
There was a woman at a reading in Chicago who had worn a sheitel for 14 years, afraid that if she didn’t God would (as she had been taught) give her breast cancer.
There was a young man in New York who had been to a prominent yeshiva, and who had always known he was gay, but lived in terror of the God he was told about—the flooding God, the vengeance God, Mr. Holocaust, Mr. Abomination—and never admitted it until he could lie to himself no longer.
Who is to blame here? Who is the criminal?
Or the teachers who tell nightmares in God’s name?
If I may be so bold as to speak for the many who have written, emailed, and come to readings—we did not invent this God. We did not, in the privacy of our own rooms, decide God was a prick. “Heyyyy, know what would be fun? Living in terror!” This is what we were taught.
Not Judaism, you say?
I say I don’t care. I don’t care if it is or isn’t Judaism. I don’t care if it is or isn’t Catholicism. I don’t care if it is or isn’t Islam. But if you happen to care, then do something about it: Someone out there is claiming things, and teaching them to children, in your God’s name. Lots of people, apparently. What, exactly, are you doing about it?
“How,” asks an interviewer from a national radio program, “have people in your community responded to your book?”
“Predictably,” I answer.
“What do you say,” asked the interviewer for a national newspaper, “to those who call you self-hating?”
I tell him I feel like I was driving down the road, told the driver beside me that his tire was flat, and got accused of hating cars.
I am writing this column despite myself. I would rather be writing fiction, or at least be writing about writing fiction. I would rather ignore it, rather let the goddamn ship sink as the captain on deck reprimands the sailor who reported the leak below. The sick twist in all of this is that I can’t. Maybe there’s a part of me that suspects—or at least wants to believe—that religion is not the organized, millennia-old Stockholm Syndrome it appears to be. Maybe I, as much or more than others, need it to be about kindness and love. And so maybe I would like somebody to stand up and say, “Not in our name.” I have been poisoned to God. Frankly, I’m doing okay without him. But others are being poisoned right this very moment, and what is being done, you stalwart warriors? What actions are you taking, you brave soldiers? Emails to my publisher? Indignant blog posts? Hip hip, hooray. Go ahead, raise your fists. Raise them high above your heads, point two fingers and cheer.
V for vitriol!
V for violence!
V for vengeance!
Well, I’ll be damned—perhaps we were created in His image after all.