On the second day of Passover, 2016 (5776) The Washington Post’s Sunday “Outlook” section included an article headlined “Syllabus: A ‘fallen Jew’ on what to read for Passover.” The “fallen Jew” offering his Pesach reads was Shalom Auslander, who’s self-documented his tortured relationship with Judaism in Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir and Hope: A Tragedy, a novel.
Auslander’s lead: “Passover is the ancient Jewish holiday on which we celebrate the story of a man who probably never existed and who may or may not have freed his people from a slavery that probably never happened by bringing forth plagues of which there is no historical record, ultimately leading them on a journey through the desert for which there is no evidence to a Promised Land that turned out to be anything but. Mazel tov!”
So according to Auslander, one of Western civilization’s foundational stories—which has resonated not only with the Jews but also Christians and Muslims, half of humanity, for millennia—is an invention. If so, then a fiction fundamentally necessary, unlike his own. More likely its enduring influence reflects an original truth.
In any case, imagine a Post commentary that began “Ramadan is the month-long—well, 29 or 30 days, it depends on who’s squinting at a crescent moon—Muslim holiday commemorating the alleged first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad. Muhammad was the pious fellow who led pillaging bands that under his successors swept out of the Arabian peninsula to conquer large parts of the world. Their success meant Ramadan—not to be confused with the Ramada hotel chain—would be celebrated across the globe. The holiday emphasizes daytime fasting, but pre-dawn breakfasts and evening feasts are featured. Sinful behavior is to be avoided, though customs regarding blowing oneself up among infidels vary. Enjoy!”
Can’t do it? Of course not. The Washington Post had the chutzpah to criticize Yale University Press in 2009 for “self-censorship” by refusing to publish a book with illustrations likely to offend Muslims. Not that The Post itself has ever published the illustrations—satirical cartoons of imagined “Muhammads” a Danish newspaper published in 2006 and that sparked deadly riots and a murder plot against the paper’s editor.
But mocking a major Jewish holiday and those who observe it, during the holiday itself, Post editors apparently considered to be must-publish journalism.
A few well-publicized cases of “shoppers-gone-wild” means Christmas “is about fighting strangers in Walmart? Really? Auslander’s example of rabbinic exactitude regarding how much matzoh is enough means Passover’s about “a more complete enslavement to God?” Seriously? A glance at The Jonathan Sacks Haggadah, with its Passover-related essays on freedom, growth and responsibility by the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, might suggest otherwise, if Auslander’s anti-religiousness weren’t so embittered and embedded.
He tells readers that at “a modern seder, or Passover meal, [you can] watch a family tear itself to pieces in the vain hope that God doesn’t tear everyone to pieces later.” Maybe at his remembered seders, but not the ones in which a large majority of Jews make a point of participating.
Auslander recommends that instead of by means of Passover, Jews seek inspiration by reading five books, four of which are:
*Fifty Shades of Grey. To Auslander, this best-selling, pornography-as-contemporary- literature “is the same story as Passover: A needy young woman (the Jews) falls for a domineering sociopath (God) who promises to bring her joy (the Holy Land) by beating the heck out of her” and so on;
*Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health. Another best-seller, this apparent anti-gluten panacea shows wheat “can cause numerous health ailments.” So in Passover’s commandment that Jews eat unleavened bread—matzoh—“either a) God didn’t know about gluten, in which case He’s not much of a God, or b) He knew about gluten and is trying to kill us. Matzoh, theologically speaking is a smoking gun.”
*Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies From the Occupied Territories, 2000-2010. According to Auslander, this compilation by a group called Breaking the Silence “reveals the many ways the enslaved have become the enslavers….Sort of an epilogue to the Passover fairy tale—yeah, sure, we got there, but it took forever, there’s been war ever since, and we’re not the same idealistic people we were when our story began.”
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, of Congregation B’nai Tzedek, Potomac, Md. responded to “A ‘fallen Jew’ on what to read for Passover” this way:
“This column should have been printed in the ‘Myths’ column. Auslander has no idea what he is talking about.
“How interesting that a novelist is so shortsighted and narrow minded that he cannot understand or appreciate the power of symbol and metaphor. The Passover story has inspired countless freedom lovers throughout history and given hope to the despondent. Passover invites each participant to engage in a dialogue with oneself and one’s heritage, with contemporary concepts and ancient, time-honored traditions, to explore issues of identity and meaning, to interact with the dialectic between the potentially conflicting pulls of particularism and universalism and to counteract complacency.
“Maybe Auslander sat at the kids’ table at too many seders and missed the greater context of the drama of the story.”
Basically “A ‘fallen Jew’ on what to read for Passover” is a piece of nihilistic group denigration in the guise of self-deprecation. It contains just enough word-play to support a couple of stand-up comedy jokes. In other words, about what one could expect from a writer whose novel Hope: A Tragedy, reportedly turns on a New York homeowner discovering Anne Frank as a survivor, elderly and foul-mouthed, hiding in his attic. He
re’s a guy who can’t, or won’t, help himself.
When it came to reviewing Auslander’s television series last year, The Post may have been closer to the mark, and Auslander’s personality: “It’s rare to encounter a half-hour dramedy on a premium network that is as misconceived, off-putting and impenetrably shrill as Shalom Auslander’s ‘Happyish’ (“Showtime’s ‘Happyish’: A dark profane dramedy without any heart,” April 24, 2015). One of the subjects the show’s characters rant about: God.
Like all Jews, all people, Auslander enjoys free will. He writes what he wants. But when The Washington Post editors chose to publish “A ‘fallen Jew’ on what to read for Passover” as a holiday greeting, readers recognize the insult.