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House of the Holy

When you’re called God, the pressure for genius is titanic

Shalom Auslander
April 27, 2006

My parents named me God.

No pressure.

I suppose I should be grateful—God has 72 names, one of which is Shalom; in a crueler mood, they might have named me Rock Of Salvation Auslander, or He Who Was Is And Always Will Be Auslander. I have a difficult enough time at the DMV as it is: “No, not Sharon Alexander. Shalom Auslander.” I had a difficult time in yeshiva as well. There it was the writing down of my regrettably sacred name, and not its pronunciation, that presented a problem. Studying and writing primarily in Hebrew and Yiddish as we did, everything I put my name on—quizzes, book reports, Highlights—became instantly holy. These once insignificant scraps of paper (and one time my brown paper lunch bag) could never again be mistreated, for now they contained upon them the very name of God Himself (and also, in the case of that brown paper lunch bag, a smiley face and a note from my mother reminding me to eat the fruit). It was forbidden to let them touch the floor, it was forbidden to throw them away, it was forbidden to place anything on top of them.

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

My superpower was more trouble than it was worth. When my classmates received their quizzes back from Rabbi Brier, they simply waited until his back was turned and tossed them in the bin. I had to take my quiz, walk outside the classroom, go upstairs, and hike all the way to the Bais Midrash (study hall) on the far side of the yeshiva where they kept a brown cardboard box reserved for holy pages without a home: torn prayer books, old Haggadahs, crumbling Talmuds, and the recently holified “What I Did This Summer,” by God Auslander. The only benefit was vengeance—if during recess my friend Dov ever got me out at dodgeball, I would wait until Rabbi Brier’s back was turned, lean over and quickly write my name on his test paper. “Psych!” Then Dov would have to travel 40 days and 40 nights to the Holy Box upstairs, the contents of which, at the end of every month, the rabbis would take out back and bury in the ground. Apparently God recycles.

What does this have to do with writing?

What does this have to do with not writing?

What does this have to do with digging holes in my head?

Piss off. You try writing something holy.

* * *I’ll get to Marley and Me in a minute.

* * *

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was the name of the Lord, and so the second word they came up with, immediately after the Word, was the word “holy,” which described the first Word, which you were prohibited from uttering, even though there were only two words in total, effectively cutting the language in half.

In the beginning, basically, it was one step forward and two steps back.

Soon came the words “shant” and “mustn’t” and “stoning” and “kill,” and then a whole lot of other words which you were required to say in the event you ever uttered the first Word, expressing regret for uttering the Word and promising never to utter the Word in vain again, so help you Word.

Other words followed—praising Word, extolling Word’s virtues, proclaiming Word as the one true Word. And Word help the son of a bitch who didn’t utter those words.

It was pretty much all downhill from there, which is when Word saw all that He had created, lit a joint, said “Screw it,” and was never heard from again.

Which is to say that I don’t really have a problem with Word. Word can do whatever He wants. Holy, though, has got me by the balls.

* * *

I’m sick of Jews lately. Perhaps “A Gateway to Jewish Literature, Culture and Ideas” is not the best place to reveal this.

You’re nothing but a self-hating bastard.

I spent time recently traveling to Chicago, DC, and Seattle on Nextbook’s Reading Series. I met some wonderful people, and deeply appreciated both the invitation and the support of the people who attended. But Christ Almighty, I’m inheebriated. I need to spend a week in a giant vat full of Boar’s Head hams with a glass of bacon juice and a bleach-blonde anyone.

You’re worse than Hitler.

Why? If I spent a week with Buddhists discussing my life with Buddha and why I write about Buddha and why I don’t like Buddha, I’d be sick of Buddhists, too. If I spent a week with pro bowlers I’m pretty sure that—

How can you write that?

The pro bowlers thing?

No, the Jew thing. How can you write that?

Not easily.

I’ve been stuck on one story in my memoir. It seemed simple enough when I began it, a small story about jumping in a cab and sneaking to the mall one Shabbos afternoon when I was ten. I was sick of Shabbos. “I hated Shabbos,” I wrote. I hated the synagogue, I hated the shoes, I hated the neckties, I hated the neighbors and the gossip and the fashion parade. “I hated,” I wrote, “Jews.”

I stopped writing.

* * *

Which brings me to Marley and Me, propped up at the front of the bookstore, tail a-waggin’, its oversized “New York Times Bestseller!” sticker obscuring the title but staying clear of the adorable goddamn dog.

“A dead doggie story,” I grumbled.

I was there to pick up the new Grove Centenary Editions four-volume hardcover boxed set of Samuel Beckett.

“You’re here for the Beckett set, too, right?” I said to the woman beside me who was busily filling her basket with copies of Marley for all of her friends.

“Aw, she’s a cutie, inn’t she?” she asked, smiling at the cover.

I nodded.

“Dead though,” I said.

“So sad,” she said, clasping her chest.

“Ever hear of Darfur?” I asked.

She laughed. “Oh, you!”

I went to the rear of the store where the Beckett had been proudly buried inside an old cardboard box on the floor behind what used to be the Information Desk but was now where employees dumped their unfinished lunches.

I carried Sam back to the Marley display. He had to see this.

“A motherfucking dead doggie story,” I said.

That wasn’t quite the way The New York Times had described it. They said something about tender, warmth, and affection; I couldn’t really make it out through the blood running into my eyes from gashes I’d been nervously digging in my head while trying to write something important, something meaningful, something….Holy.


What a dick.

Little God Auslander, sitting in a vat of Boar’s Head and still believing books are holy. Or that they should be holy. Or that the ones I write should be holy. Nice little corner I’ve holied myself into: when I think what I’m working on is holy I can’t write it, when I think what I’m working on isn’t holy I don’t want to.

Rabbi Brier had seen me writing my name on a baseball card. It was a Carl Yastrzemski. I had just traded for it with Avi Tuchman. “This before you now,” said Rabbi Brier, “is the name of God.” “Yaz?” I asked. “You must never throw this away,” he said (no shit—it cost me a Willie Randolph and a mint Lou Pinella).
We kissed our prayer books before we prayed, and we kissed them again when we were done. We washed our hands before reading from the Talmud. When we opened the Ark and took out the Five Books of Moses, everyone stood, and we sang, and we prayed, and when we read from those books we used a long silver pointer because it was forbidden to touch the books with our bare, impure, unholy human hands. You must never throw this away.

Now go write something.

What new freedom it is for me, to imagine books are just books. 600,000 published a year, is that the latest number? To quote Rabbi Lenny, “To is a preposition, come is a verb.” And God is a noun, and one guy wrote about dead doggies, and I wrote that I hate Jews. I also hate the Grove Centenary Editions four-volume hardcover boxed set of Samuel Beckett, but you don’t see Paul Auster (ed.) flying off the handle. Christ, it looks like a collection of fucking seforim. Dark blue clothbound hardcovers, with nothing but a few spare gold-embossed words on the spine. Absolutely sacred. If there was one guy who didn’t treat words as religion—who pretty much unholied everything he could—it was Samuel Beckett. But the set in my hands didn’t feel like Samuel Beckett; it felt like the collected Torah lectures of Reb Shmuel Beckett, shlita, the famed student of Rabbi Joyce of Dublin (the R’JAD), May His Memory Be Blessed Among the Greats of the People of Israel.

Maybe making things holy makes religious people feel holy. Maybe making books holy makes book people feel holy. Maybe the whole “holy book” thing was just a vast Rabbinical ploy designed both to dissuade us from questioning the books which they had written, and to keep us from writing our own.

Or maybe not.

Maybe I’m just paranoid.

Go write something holy, see how far you get.

Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin’s Lament and the novel Hope: A Tragedy. He is also a frequent contributor to This American Life.

Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin’s Lament, Hope: A Tragedy, and most recently Mother for Dinner. His new memoir, Fehwill be published this July. He writes The Fetal Position on Substack, so make that seven Nazis.

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