“That Time When We Were Indifferent”: A Conversation with Shalom Auslander

Shalom Auslander

As a yeshiva boy, Shalom Auslander showed such promise that his rabbis believed he would grow into a leader of the Jewish people. They proved poor talent scouts. Auslander left the Orthodox community—a protracted affair he discusses in his unruly, hilarious memoir, Foreskin’s Lament —and has since written four deliriously unholy books which explore the limitations imposed by religious orthodoxy and other inherited, obligatory identities. “I have very little connection to Judaism or Jewish people,” says the former apt pupil. “Though one thing I do admire is that historically we’ve been a pain in the ass. We ask hard questions. The Spanish should have kicked us out.”

Auslander remains in touch with this Jewish legacy of wise-cracking rebellion. He is a wicked son, and his books offer comic variations on that archetype’s needling seder question: “What does all this mean to you?” (Spare the Philip Roth comparisons, please: “Roth got off easy. The guy didn’t even see a yarmulke until he was ten years old.”) Foreskin’s Lament, Auslander’s breakout book, mocks the punctilious, all-scrutinizing God of his childhood; his follow-up, the novel Hope: A Tragedy, imagines a foul-mouthed, octogenarian Anne Frank alive in an American Jewish family’s attic, where she feverishly works on a novel to prove she’s “not some goddamned memoirist.” What would Jewish identity be, Auslander asks, without the death of Anne Frank? And what might an otherwise reasonable American Jew do to preserve the myth of the departed diarist?

In Mother for Dinner, his newest novel, Auslander bears his unblunted teeth at America’s obsession with ethnic and religious identity—what his protagonist describes as an “ever-growing list of cellblocks from which there was no release.” A satire of tribalism, tradition, and assimilation, of familial bonds and sacred authorities, Mother For Dinner concerns a family of Cannibal-Americans, a shrinking ethnic group with attenuated ties to its ancestral traditions. When the family’s matriarch dies, her thirteen children must choose between allowing their ancient rituals to fade away and mourning their mother according to Cannibal law: by consuming her five hundred pound corpse. 

Auslander and I spoke over Zoom. Below is a condensed version of our conversation, most of which we spent in laughter—Auslander’s preferred mode, I came to realize, for expressing an admirable and earnest longing for a less divided world. 

What was the origin of Mother For Dinner?

This book came from a question that I was trying to figure out in my own life. I was forty-five and had been estranged from my family for a long time, so I wondered what I would do if I heard my mother had died. Would I go to the funeral or not? I wanted to see how someone else might deal with this question, and fiction is this great place where you can see what others would do. You create an analog of yourself, or analogs—there are twelve brothers and one sister in Mother For Dinner—and as you learn about them, you learn about yourself. Controlled schizophrenia. But funny.

And from that, obviously, I’m involving cannibals. I’m Jewish, and was raised in a small Orthodox community in New York, so I wanted my characters to have to deal with the same identity issues and cultural guilt and the same oppressive weight of history as Jews and everyone else deals with, but without being Jewish. Or anything else. I wanted a fictional group, with a fictional history and mythology and theology. I don’t remember the first time I thought, “Oh, hey—cannibals.” But identity is such a fucking thing in this country, in this world. When I hear somebody saying I’m a proud X, Y, or Z, I know we’re not gonna get along. Because unless X, Y, or Z is “human,” I’m really not interested. I don’t know how you can look at the world right now and not see how that obsession with identity has led to this. Some of it natural, and unfortunate; much of it political and encouraged and manipulated. And criminal. And yet at the same time, everyone is willingly going further into their own ghettos, into their own restrictions, building up the walls around them even higher. I wanted somebody experiencing that as well, that conflict. Am I a Whatever or am I a Me? Where does one begin and the other end?

Your protagonist, Seventh Seltzer, describes identity as a “prison he longed to escape.” Do you, like Seventh, see a connection between the insularity of your upbringing and the tribalism permeating the present moment? 

The tribalism I experienced was two-fold. First, it was internal; I grew up in Rockland County, in a town called Monsey, and everyone in that ultra-Orthodox community wanted to forever be a part of that community. There was never a thought that you might want to leave, that you might fall in love with someone from another religion or people. That where you come from might not be who you are. The consequences of that sort of insularity were predictable, and you see it in any group: a feeling of superiority, a fear of others, paranoia, xenophobia. Then, when I left, I found a second tribalism, that of the world I wished to join, the larger world, which only saw me as “Jew.” I felt a bit like Yossarrian at the end of Catch-22, if he finally made it to Sweden, only to find another war going on there. I had gotten on a train out of Auschwitz and it ended up going straight to Treblinka. You go out in the world and you hear, “You don’t understand me because you’re white,” or “You don’t understand me because you’re American,” or “I’m French and I hate you because I’m better than you.” The problem that I thought was localized to Jews turned out to be global, chronic. 

That seemed like such a dead-end to me, and I thought the best thing I could do—not for my people, but for People—was to ditch this bullshit. I didn’t choose what vagina I came out of, why be proud of it? Clearly I would have picked another woman, and I don’t think that “Jew” would have been the first thing on my list. So why does that suddenly determine who I am, what I am? Here’s the thing, the beautiful thing: our great-grandchildren won’t be white. They won’t be black. They’re going to be a beautiful admixture, alchemy—gold from nothing. If we’re really lucky, they won’t be Jewish or Christian or Catholic or Muslim either. Everyone’s grandchildren will be brown and mixed and that’s awesome. What a beautiful ending, and what a struggle it will have been to achieve it. I have news for you: if there is a creator, someone who wrote this story, that’s the story they’re writing, whether we want it or not. Personally, I want it; Klansmen don’t. But it feels like we’re dragging our collective heels and getting lost in this idea that identity makes us who we are, and it doesn’t. 

These are big issues, and I know that. And I know that for me, growing up Jewish in America, I was very happy to be able to take my yarmulke off when I was out of the sight of my parents, because then I became one of Everybody Else. There are people and races that can’t take their identity off and will always be looked at the way I was when I had my yarmulke on—which is, I’m-gonna-fuck-you-up, or I-hate-you, or be-afraid. What I’m talking about is not trying to forget everything that made you you. I’m just trying to look forward, because everyone else seems to be looking back. Where is that getting us? What’s the going-ahead narrative? Is it a continuation of everybody isolated in their own corners of the world with walls and guns and bombs? Is that what we’re aiming for? Because that’s where we are now, so take a good look around.

Your other books deal with Jews and predominantly (though not exclusively) Jewish problems. Why use Cannibals, or more accurately, Cannibal-Americans, to explore the shortcomings of defining oneself through ethnic or religious affiliation?

Part of the reason for using Cannibal-Americans was that I didn’t want to get caught in the trap of Jewish-American, or white-this or Black-that. I wanted it to be something that everyone was going to approach with the same attitude. Everyone agrees we hate cannibals. So how does that feel, to be hated, reviled, to have to live in secret? And don’t get me started on Hollywood—if you are Cannibal-American, you’re not gonna like Gilligan’s Island much. That was not a positive representation, and Cannibals would have a significant gripe. 

Writing about Cannibal-Americans also permits me to ask questions about the rest of us. Mudd Seltzer, the mother, explains, “We take our loved ones and ingest them. We make them a part of us. You bury your mother in the ground with worms. And we’re the barbarians?” It’s one of the few things Mudd says that I agree with. It’s worth asking these questions. Maybe when we sit around in Congress or the Knesset feeling like we’re better than all those shithole countries, we’re the fucking barbarians. And the more you look at it, the more you think, “Yes, we are. We all are.” I’m not suggesting we all hold hands and come together because we’re so special and human; it’s not humanism; on the contrary, my point of view is that if we all just admitted how shitty and stupid and shithole we all are, maybe we could come together, in that shared unimpressiveness, and start building something better.

Can you describe the ideas around which Can-Am culture organizes itself?

Cannibals are incredibly secretive, because their traditions are crimes. They had to keep quiet. Everything they did was whispered, which went to the level of the elders forbidding anyone to write their traditions down. That was one of the narrative benefits of using Cannibals—I wanted there to be endless questions about their past and their rituals. I wanted them to be absolutely devout about things they weren’t at all certain about. That seems to me to be every religion and nation in the world. Whether history is written by the victors or the victims, it’s written by someone—and we’re ready to kill each other because of what they wrote.

Where this really comes across in the novel is through Remembrance Day, which for Cannibal-Americans is the most important day of the year. It’s Christmas, July 4th, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Veteran’s Day, 9/11, all rolled into one. Every Cannibal knows that Remembrance Day honors a horrible thing that happened to the Cannibals, but no one remembers what that horrible thing was, who did it, when it happened, or even what day of the year Remembrance Day is. To me that really nailed mankind: I know I got hurt, I know someone hurt me, and I don’t want anyone to fucking forget it—even though I’ve forgotten it, or I’m a bit foggy on the details, or if the Elder who told me about it was so old he couldn’t remember what he had for breakfast that day let alone what happened 500 years ago. “I’m sure it was horrible, but I can’t remember it.” That to me is the human condition in a hilarious nutshell.

This secrecy leads to other forms of historical confusion. Cannibal-Americans fiercely debate whether their ancestors, the first Cannibals to emigrate to America from a forgotten Old Country, celebrated or bemoaned their entrance into American life. This is a clever parody of coming-to-America narratives, which often include intergenerational debates about the pros and cons of becoming American. 

One of the central tales of the Cannibal-American people is Henry Ford and the Ford factory in Detroit where their great-grandfather worked, as so many immigrants did. I remember when I discovered Americanization Day, which was a real thing that Ford had his workers do if they wanted to receive the famed $5 a day for working at his factory. His workers had to go through a lengthy, often humiliating training process. When the day of the ceremony came—it was held on July 4th of course—they would dress up in the garb of their original countries, which most of them didn’t even have. Because why the fuck would you pack your lederhosen? You’re coming to America. But they would dress up in these costumes, like idiots, and then climb up a ladder and go back behind an enormous plywood facade painted black with the words Melting Pot written across the front. While they’re back there, they take off the barrel and the lederhosen, and they’re wearing suits and ties. And someone back there hands them a little American flag, which you know was made in China, and they come up the other side of the facade, climb up a second ladder and out, and now they’re Americans. 

I laughed my ass off when I read that. Like, no fucking way. And yet there are photos of the damned thing. And that laughter freed me up to ask questions of my own reaction. We look at Americanization Day through our 2020 perspective and think, “Oh, what a horrible, fucked up thing that is.” And maybe it was. But not all of them were doing it with a gun to their head. A lot of them were doing it for the pay raise, but for others it was like, “Holy shit, I made it. I’m American. Thank God I’m out of there. Russia sucked!” And if I were there, I might have felt the same way: Holy fuck, I got the suit! Yeah! I’m taking off the tallis and the tefillin. I’m fucking outta here! 

What you’re describing is the ambivalence of assimilation, which the Cannibal Elders equate with genocide. This reminds me of the demographic anxieties that plagued American Jewish leaders in the last decades of the twentieth century: as the country’s Jewish population dwindled, prominent Orthodox rabbis compared the statistical effects of assimilation and intermarriage to a “silent Holocaust.” In other words, Jews who married out or neglected their ancestral traditions were as bad as Nazis. Were you raised with this idea? Did it influence your representation of the Cannibal Elders?

Definitely. Though when I was a kid, it didn’t even need to be intermarriage or assimilation. I got caught eating a cheeseburger and my mother told me I was finishing what Hitler started. And I distinctly remember thinking, “That wasn’t what they said at McDonalds. They said I was getting a Happy Meal.” Many years later, I mentioned this story to an elderly couple, both of whom were Holocaust survivors. I told it somewhat light-heartedly, because for me it was so common that I never questioned it. And the woman, who was in her mid-80s, slammed her hand down on the bar in rage and said, “Who told you that? Who said that to you?” Like she wanted to kick my mother’s ass.

History is something of a Rorschach test. Some fact, a lot of fiction. Take the story of Ellis Island, which is also part of the novel. I was always told that the people who worked at Ellis Island were Nazis and antisemites. So when your great-grandfather came over and said, “My name is Sam Goldenschmeckle,” they said, “Tough shit, Jew, we’re calling you Gold.” Because they wanted to destroy your Judaism. But it turns out that’s not even remotely possible. The people working on Ellis Island had no power to do that, it wasn’t something they even dealt with. Names were entered on the manifests at the port of embarkation, not at Ellis Island. So if a name was shortened, it was by somebody on that side of the ocean. Maybe people felt guilt about changing their name, or couldn’t accept that their father wanted to assimilate, so they came up with a story where it was forced. 

As for the Holocaust: there is a Holocaust industry, the same way there’s industry around so many other atrocities. It is in the interest of some people to keep it going, that hatred, that injury, that pain, whether for power or money. I was sent a news article by someone recently that reported with horror that some large percentage of American teens don’t know what the Holocaust was. So first of all, what teenagers aren’t going to prank the fuck out of some poll asking them if they ever heard of the Holocaust? And of course, if you look a bit deeper, the organization that released the poll is currently trying to raise funds. Off the poll. Which they took. And by the way, the same organization has embezzled millions of dollars that were meant for Holocaust survivors. Oopsie. Their interest is not in preserving memory, or whatever else they call it. Netanyahu can’t order breakfast without mentioning the Holocaust, that’s how he keeps power. “I’ll have the Number 5 with scrambled eggs, which they didn’t have in Dachau.” Keep the people afraid, keep them terrified. Tell them everyone wants to kill them. And you know what? It fucking works. It works there, it works here in America, it works in Russia, it works in China. But what if people got tired of it and said, “You know, there were many years before the Holocaust—what happened to those years? Why don’t we ever talk about those?” Let’s ask some Holocaust survivors if they think that the memory of what they went through is being manipulated or being treated properly. What would they say? There’s a documentary called The Last Laugh that I appeared in that is about Holocaust survivors laughing at the stuff that they went through, because what else are you gonna do? You have to. And the woman it’s centered around says that she gets shit from people who weren’t in the camps. How the fuck does that happen? 

The novel’s voice for these ideas about history is Zero, the youngest Seltzer and Mudd’s only daughter. As her brothers resign themselves to eating their mother’s corpse for the sake of cultural continuity, Zero decries the “fascination we humans have with tradition.”

What really irritates Zero is the credibility and respect and power that we give to people from a thousand years ago—who had never heard of a germ, who thought the world was flat, who had no idea about most of the things a third grader today knows. It’s not their fault, but why do we look to them for how we should behave today? When does this stop? Do you just take it back to its logical conclusion? Should we all just climb up trees and be monkeys? Because that’s what our ancestors did. Why not? Every Friday night we’re all gonna climb up into trees and we’re gonna sit there until sundown on Saturday because our ancestors did. Mom will pick bugs out of Dad’s hair because that’s what they did, and I’ll eat some termites with a stick. Is that that much more ridiculous than a Hassidic Jew wearing a fur hat because they wore fur hats in Russia? It’s constantly backward-looking, and it makes us primitive in our behavior to each other, because we’re admiring primitive people. As long as we allow primitive man to decide how we should behave today we will continue to be primitive. There’s no other possible outcome. Flags are primitive, hating people because of their skin color is primitive, and believing in imaginary, bearded beings in the sky who care whether I eat cheeseburgers or not is primitive. And I asked myself, How can I talk about this? Because I can’t change anything. And somehow the answer became, I’ll write about Cannibal-Americans.

The novel provides an alternative to this backward-looking tribalism when Seventh takes his pregnant wife, Carol, to get an ultrasound. The nurse explains that a fetus exists in an “indifferent stage” before its testes or ovaries develop, and the soon-to-be parents lament that this “brief, wonderful moment” has to pass. Why does this notion of indifference appeal so strongly to them?

I’m fascinated by the elements of our being that point to a possible better future—something in our cells, in the schematic, something that’s been there the whole time and we’ve just overlooked it. One is the idea that on a DNA level, we start out “indifferent,” neither male nor female. We’re just Sam or Shalom or Alice or Maria. What a bummer that we couldn’t stay indifferent! I’d kill for some indifference right about now. Maybe the whole game, the whole journey, the whole purpose of every individual life and life at large is to get back to that time when we were indifferent. But instead we get more flags.

A similar notion, which Zero tells her brothers, is that all organisms begin either mouth first or asshole first. That at the earliest stage of development, creatures either form an asshole first, or a mouth first. This is true, this is real. Humans, unsurprisingly, begin asshole first. So I’m an asshole, you’re an asshole, everyone is an asshole. We start out as assholes—true equality—enjoy a brief moment of indifference, and it’s all downhill from there. Zero just wants everyone to accept that—to accept that we’re all just assholes, and maybe then we can stop killing each other and hating each other and work to some better end than the one we seem headed for.

When I read Hope: A Tragedy, your first novel, I assumed you spoke through Professor Jove, the cynical psychiatrist who advises your protagonist, Solomon Kugel, against the dangers of hopefulness. Now I suspect I’ve underestimated the optimism and sincerity that motivate your comedy. Was I mistaken to take that book’s title at face value?

Jove is the anti-mentor, the guy who gives all the wrong advice while certain it’s the right advice. I’m mostly Kugel, hoping despite all evidence and probably getting fucked for doing so. 

In your nonfiction—Foreskin’s Lament, or your Moth performance “Death Camp Blues”—you describe humor as a consolation for living in a world created by a cruel, murderous God. Can you tell me more about the role humor plays in your work?

For me, laughter and humor are not just survival mechanisms, they’re truth mechanisms, ways to find what’s true. Kafka was basically a stand-up comedian. Kafka could write a funny story about a family who doesn’t give a fuck that their son turned into a bug except that it’s going to ruin their rent. That truth comes out of that is a gift, it’s a miracle. Kundera writes that Kafka’s method was to “go into the dark depths of the joke”—that is, to find the truth in it. It’s funny, and then it isn’t. Ha ha ha ouch. That’s life. That’s Vonnegut. That’s Voltaire and Rabelais. Of course, then academics fuck it up for us and say, “No, no—Franz wasn’t being funny. He was being prophetic about the dehumanizing forces of bureaucracy and industrialization” or some shit. As if it’s funny, it can’t possibly have depth or meaning. But nothing is truer. Shaw said that “My way of joking is to tell the truth: It is the funniest joke in the world.” Beckett is another writer like Kafka, who’s discussed too seriously. Beckett was kidding. For a long time the screensaver on my laptop was a photo of Beckett laughing—smoking a cigarette and cracking up. I couldn’t believe it when I found it. I thought, “Wow, he laughs. He laughs!” And then I realized, wait a minute, he’s always laughing. I can see distinct connections between Beckett and Bill Hicks, or Richard Pryor and Flannery O’Connor and Cervantes and Dave Chappelle. These guys laughed, and in that laughter they said more than any tragedian ever did. Rabelais wrote about what he called “agelasts,” people who were afraid of laughter. They almost made him stop writing, he said, but he refused. Those are the “people” I want to belong to—the laughers and the askers and the wonderers, and they’re Black and white and male and female and Asian and Jewish and Christian and Muslim. 

I was raised with an asshole God. I still, at times, look at the world and go, “Yup, he’s a fucker.” But if God had one good moment in creation—one moment of kindness and empathy for these creatures he created—it was the moment he looked around and said, “Yikes, what a fucking toilet. I better give them a sense of humor. Because there’s no way they’re gonna make it through this without one.”

How is your relationship with God these days?

I don’t think of him as much. I’ve gone from being a monotheist by force to being an atheist by desperation to being an agnostic by choice. My belief is not that there is a God, or that there isn’t a God, but rather that we’re not supposed to know either way. A mystery. There are some things that should be questions. The question mark is not a bad thing. We should wonder and we should not know. I’m a fanatical hater of certainty, and Richard Dawkins is as certain of his beliefs as the Lubavitcher Rebbe is of his. I don’t need a secular Lubavitcher Rebbe. I just need someone who says, I don’t know. Socrates said, “The only thing I know is that I know nothing.” I think we could all use a healthy dose of that, of just saying, “I don’t know. I don’t know shit.” 


Samuel Gold is a doctoral candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is on Twitter @aglassoranapple.

Photo: Theo & Juliet Photography

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