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Burnt Offerings

Divine intervention in a grueling writing process

Shalom Auslander
March 23, 2006

I’m digging holes in my head. They are bleeding. There are three on the top of my head, another one in the back. It hurts when I shower. I’ll probably begin another one this afternoon.

Oh, that’s interesting. You mean that the process of writing a memoir, of examining who you are and where you come from, can be compared to digging holes in…

No, I mean I’m fucking digging holes in my head. Holes. In my head. With my fingernails. I can’t stop myself.

I typed that with one hand. Dug with the other.

* * *
Writing’s been slow lately. God doesn’t want me to write this book—doesn’t like the way He comes out looking, and He’s unhappy with the portrayal of his Chosen People—so He is doing everything in His power to distract me. Like porn.
If it weren’t for porn, I’d have written as much as Shakespeare by now. More. You can talk all you like about focus, passion, and commitment to writing, but if every time Will sat down at his desk he found the homepage of “Little White Chicks, Big Moorish Dicks,” I doubt even half his plays would have been completed.

“So how’s the play coming?” his wife would ask.

“Oh, you know. Middle Act. Not sure about the whole ghost thing.”

“Working late again tonight?”

“Probably. Where’s the Jergen’s?”

It’s a stall tactic, of course, but it’s a good one. My shrink thinks it’s a positive sign.

“Resistance isn’t a bad thing. It means you’re getting close to something deep, something personal.”

I missed that section in Strunk & White. “Wank Unhurriedly.”

“Get away from the computer,” he suggested. “Write longhand.”

I did. And dug a hole in my head.

* * *
I spent the last week of February in London, reading from my book at the annual Jewish Book Week festival. I hoped to get some writing done on the way there, but God filled my flight with dozens of American college girls on their way to England for a semester.

“Funny,” I said to God.

The BBC asked me to write something about Jewish Book Week, and to read it on their morning radio show. I wrote about how busy my week in London was going to be, and that I was quite upset at not having the time to properly tour. “In case you haven’t heard,” I read, “these are busy times to be a Jew. I may be out of the States for the next few days, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still have to control the White House and the major American news media.” It continued like that for some time. “Monday I’m at Number Ten all afternoon unduly influencing Tony Blair’s decision to go to war, Tuesday I’m stuck with a bunch of film producers at a “Keeping African Americans Down By Negatively Portraying Them in Hollywood Movies” conference, and Wednesday I’m supposed to present the Israelis some additional cartoon-based plots for disgracing Islam and causing upheaval in the Muslim world.”

I was amazed they aired it.

“More importantly,” said the shrink, “you’re writing again.”

He can be so naïve.

“God’s not going to stop me from writing something defending the Jews,” I said to him. “Don’t be crazy.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m being crazy.”

I hoped to get some writing done on the way back to New York, but God filled my flight with dozens of British college girls on their way to America for a semester.

“Funny,” I said to God.

* * *
When I was nine I discovered a pile of pornographic magazines in the woods behind my house. I was in yeshiva at the time, or I might not have realized that God was testing me as He had once tested Abraham with the sacrifice of Isaac. “Nice try,” I said, and ran home. But I returned the next day, and the magazines hadn’t moved. I failed right there in the woods. I brought the magazines home, and failed straight through the evening. When my parents left the next morning to do some errands, I took the magazines out back with a bottle of lighter fluid, laid them down on the cement walkway, and offered them up as a sin offering to the Lord.

A few weeks later, I found my father’s dirty magazines, and I burnt those, too. And my brother’s. And my mother’s vibrator. And a “Betty And Veronica Comics Digest,” which Rabbi Goldfisher said was tumeh, or impure, and a tool of the Evil Inclination.

For a few years, simple sacrifices sufficed.

When I was fifteen, I took the subway from my yeshiva to Times Square. I buried my yarmulke in my pocket, and walked up and down 8th Avenue for an hour before working up the courage to duck inside one of the theaters. I locked myself in the first booth I could find, where I turned to find myself facing a two-foot tall, one-foot wide window that looked out onto a raised, circular stage. Music played loudly. Across the way I could see other windows, with other men looking out. Naked women roamed the stage, waiting for a face to appear at a window and hurrying to squat in front of it. This was what Sodom was like. What was God waiting for? A naked woman squatted down in front of me and said something.

“Excuse me?” I said. I couldn’t hear her over the music.

“Two for tits,” she shouted, “three for pussy.”

I had no idea what she was talking about.

“Two for tits,” she said again, “three for pussy.”

I reached into my pocket. All I had was my yarmulke and a five.

When I got home, I washed my hands and recited Tehillim for an hour. Sacrifices were no longer enough. The sin was too great. Burning was too easy.

That night, after showering and saying goodnight to my mother, I went to my bedroom, stood naked in front of my desk, and dropped the heaviest dictionary I could find onto my own tool of the Evil Inclination.




This continued, in various different ways, and for various different sins, for over ten years. It continued—hidden, in the bathroom, the shower, late at night while she slept—into my marriage, and didn’t end until I had put myself into the emergency room and was being rushed into surgery.

“We may have to remove a testicle,” said the surgeon.

“Okey-dokey,” I said to God, “I think that makes us even.”

* * *
This is the problem I’ve had with memoir, at least with the ones that I’ve read, or at least with the one that I worry I might end up writing: they suggest that the author has overcome. That these are the trials, troubles and fuck-ups of a day long since past. Success! Wisdom gained!

Ten years after smiting my testicles, here I am again, digging holes in my head.

The sin this time? Writing a memoir. The victim? God. It’s always God. And the Jews. My family. The reader. Other writers. The charges? Pull up a chair: shaming the Jewish people, ridiculing religion, helping the anti-Semites, embarrassing my mother, embarrassing my father, embarrassing my brother, embarrassing my sister, shamelessly cashing in on a publishing trend, taking the easy way out because everyone knows fiction is more difficult, telling lies, telling the truth, being too critical, being too forgiving, being self-involved, being self-important, being cruel to the innocent, being kind to the guilty, being angry, being melodramatic, being unfair, being me.

I typed that with one hand. Dug with the other.

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 and the novel Hope: A Tragedy. He is also a frequent contributor to This American Life. His new novel, Mother for Dinner, will be published by Riverhead this September.