April 2005

Megan Walton

fiction

Beware of God by Shalom Auslander

Beware of God by Shalom Auslander consists of 14 short stories all dealing with the metaphysical and the spiritual. Heavily involved with Judaism, Islander often uses his stories to question Talmudic rules and the entire concept of faith. In one story God is a chicken, in another a man must go to Home Depot to buy building materials for an ark. Part Woody Allen, part Philip Roth, Auslander manages to investigate the meaning of faith and spirituality while making the reader laugh out loud.

Auslander depicts both religion and God in unique, fresh ways that consistently fall short of respectful. He imagines a God with a personality, and it’s not always a likeable one. In “Prophets Dilemma” God is portrayed as a needy tyrant who demands His every whim be fulfilled. He invades the life of Schwartzman who is instructed to build an ark, construct a golden altar, and sacrifice she-goats, all with little reason and to the distinct displeasure of his wife and neighbors. In ‘They’re All the Same” God is a cold egotistical businessman and "Somebody Up There Likes You” finds a world-weary God tired of running the show. God even makes an appearance as a thirty-foot chicken in the aptly titled “God Is A Big Happy Chicken."

Auslander saves his most devastatingly humorous critiques for the humans who attempt to act according to God’s will. In the opening story, "The War of the Bernsteins," Mr. Bernstein becomes obsessed with following God’s law. He ponders the intricate spiritual meanings of every action, refuses to engage in any sort of “frivolous” sex with his wife, and cannot be persuaded to go to the movies on Sunday. His wife, young and tired of his proselytizing, begins to sabotage her husband’s plan to be the perfect Jew. She sneaks dairy products in with meat during dinner and sets the alarm clock so that he will have to use an electronic device on holy days. In the end the “evil” member of the marriage decides to leave, presumably to be happy and not worry about the moral implications of television.

This notion of keeping the big picture in mind is crystallized in the closing story “It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Supremacy.” Epstein creates two golem servants by reading the book Kabbalah for Dummies only to discover that, in their eagerness to please, the golems are completely and utterly useless. They argue about the finer points of Epstein’s commands often to the point where the argument replaces any action. The chore of laundry becomes a battleground for different interpretations of the order “separate the whites from the colors” -- how does one determine “color”? This and other differences of opinion, such as when to water the plants, lead the Golems to come to blows. Without arms, without legs, they are useless to Epstein and in fact need his help. “’Have mercy upon your servant… and bring unto me a beer” pleads Golem Two. “And some chips,” adds Golem One. Epstein packs up his things, leaving the golems to sit helplessly, praising Epstein, certain he can hear their cries for mercy and beer.

Throughout the stories in Beware of God, Auslander pokes fun at every concept of God that humans believe without question. With his blasphemous musings on faith and religion what Auslander really asks is this: How can you be so sure of the details? To presume to know what God wants you to eat, whether he cares about you at all and what appliances he would like you to use is an exercise in the ridiculous. You cannot be entirely certain that God is watching, let alone that he has deemed pork unholy. With his sharp, satirically funny stories, Auslander seems to shrug and say that in the end, we can only laugh about it all and hope that God is not a thirty-foot tall chicken.

Beware of God by Shalom Auslander
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 0743264568
208 Pages