Up in Smoke
Imagining the day they come to take your Judaism away
It’s been a busy summer, what with summer camp and playdates and all, and so the vacation my wife and I planned to take in June was pushed to July, the July trip was then pushed to August. The other day, we stood in the kitchen, rescheduling the August trip for the end of September.
“What about the High Holy Days?” she asked.
“I’m not sure they’re holy,” I said, “but I’m definitely going to spend them high.”
Ha! I love that joke.
Suddenly there came a furious knocking at my front door. Outside stood an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, with a big black hat, a long black beard, and a red canister of gasoline in his hand. Two young yeshiva students were at his side, one holding a clipboard, the other holding a baseball bat. I opened the door.
“Shalom Auslander?” the rabbi asked.
“Shalom Auslander, the Jew?”
“What an odd question,” I said.
“Yes or no,” he said.
The yeshiva student with the clipboard checked something off on his sheet of paper, and the rabbi handed me a small wooden box.
“It is my duty to inform you,” he said, “that you are no longer Jewish.”
“Did my mother send you?” I asked.
The rabbi shook his head and explained that he was a representative of the committee assigned by the Knesset to determine who was and wasn’t a Jew.
“I thought that was just about conversions,” I said.
“It started out that way,” the rabbi replied. “But if you’re going to judge the validity of people’s conversions, you might as well judge the validity of their observance, their beliefs, their behavior.” His eyes narrowed at me. “Even their jokes.”
“You mean that one about the High Holy Days?”
“Bingo,” said the rabbi. “We did not appreciate that. The question of who is and who isn’t a Jew is one of the most critical of our time.”
“That and, say, hunger,” I said.
“Don’t judge me,” said the rabbi.
I apologized and shook the box.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“So, big deal,” I said with a shrug. “So, I’m not a Jew. So, what?”
The rabbi nodded to the student beside him, who raised his bat overhead and shattered the glass of my front door.
“May we come in?” the rabbi asked.
The rabbi explained that now that I was un-Jewed, any possessions I may have acquired as a result of my having once been a Jew were to be returned or destroyed.
The student smashed my TV.
“You have profited handsomely from some very Jewish qualities,” the rabbi said. “Self-awareness, facility with words, a sense of humor (sort of). When you were a Jew that was OK. But now it’s a slap in the face of the 6 million who died in the Holocaust.”
The students smashed my DVD player and bashed in my computer.
“I think you’re overestimating my book sales,” I said.
“Ah yes, the books,” said the rabbi. “Those are going to have to go too.”
Not just mine, he explained, but all the once-Jewish writers who had been deemed no longer Jewish—all these would have to be destroyed too. As the one student continued smashing my belongings, the other went through my bookshelves, pulling off the books of all the un-Jewed Jewish authors he could find and throwing them into a pile on the floor of my den. He started with the Roths—Henry and Joseph and Philip. The Collected Works of Franz Kafka followed, as did The Complete Prose of Woody Allen and The Collected Letters of Groucho Marx and The Complete Short Stories of Isaac Babel. Some say Cervantes’ mother was Jewish, so they simply tore my Don Quixote in half, and then they tore in half my Complete Works of Michel de Montaigne and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. When they were done, all that was left were some Shakespeare, a bunch of 20th-century Russians, my collected Beckett (though they tore out the introduction by Paul Auster), and anything by Céline, who fortunately hated Jews.
The yeshiva student poured gasoline on the book pile and lit a match. The rabbi explained that I had two weeks to return my sense of humor, my 401(k), and any screenplays I might be working on to the Israeli government. I tried to get him to take my shame, sexual dysfunction, hypochondria, and low self-esteem, but he refused, claiming those were the fault of my parents and were therefore their responsibility.
The yeshiva student set the books on fire. My wife came into the room and asked what was going on.
“We’re not Jews anymore,” I said.
“So, can we go on vacation in September?” she asked.
I’d had enough.
“I would like to speak to your supervisor,” I said to the rabbi.
“We have no supervisors,” said the rabbi. “We did, but we took their Jewishness away too.”
“What about their supervisors, then?”
“We un-Jewed those goyim first.”
“Surely there’s someone in the Israeli government I can speak with.”
“Not Jewish enough?”
“Tel Aviv,” he explained.
“Netanyahu,” I said, “let me speak to him.”
The rabbi shook his head.
“Have you ever seen him with a yarmulke? Always with the bare head, the sheygets. And he calls himself a Jew.”
“So, how many Jews are left?” I asked.
“Just us,” said the rabbi. “But Shlomo’s being de-Jewed when we get back to the motel, and Yaakov once carried on Shabbos, so we’re pretty much down to me.”
“You’re the last Jew?”
“Looks that way.”
I shook my head at the irony of it all. When I was young and violated Shabbos or ate nonkosher, my mother told me I was finishing what Hitler started. Later, when I wrote anything critical of Judaism, I was told the same thing by complete strangers. Who would have guessed that the ones who’d really try to finish what Hitler started would be a few ultra-Orthodox rabbis? The rabbi and I sat on my couch and watched the flames rising higher and higher in my home. He sighed sadly.
“What can you do,” he said, “when the whole world hates us?”
The Nathanael West collection caught fire at the top of the pile. The I.B. Singer smoldered near the bottom. Half of The Catcher in the Rye curled into ash and floated up to the ceiling.
“Anti-Semites, the whole lot of them,” said the rabbi. “Never again.”