Monday, May 14, 2012

Does Shalom Auslander Tell the Truth on This American Life?

Recently, This American Life (a podcast that I reguarly enjoy) garnered a fair amount of press attention (OK, a huge amount. Just Google: This American Life Retraction) after it was forced to issue an hour-long mea-culpa for airing a "dramatization" about factory workers in China as facts. It was an impressive thing to listen to, as frustrated host Ira Glass grilled the performer about why he lied to them, telling them that his show was totally accurate, when in fact he had fabricated significant portions of the dramatization. (He made some crazy claims about a "larger truth", but his real motivation was clearly to get the incredible publicity of appearing for almost the full This American Life show.)
In any case, TAL has since made clear that it will not represent a story as non-fiction when it cannot fully verify the truth of that story. It's an admirable policy, especially for a show that essentially tells stories. Still, This American Life often attmepts to explore aspects of the news, sometimes exposing scandals in 60 Minutes-like fashion, so telling the truth seems to be an inherent, critical aspect of the show.
This morning, an article in the Washington Post wondered about other segments that frequently appear on TAL (and other NPR shows) from humorist and author David Sedaris. Sedaris tells semi-funny stories in a humorous way to get laughs. (Apparently, that's what comedians do.) Along the way, he makes up some things to give the stories a funnier edge. When the Post asked TAL host Ira Glass about all this,
In an interview, Glass said no one at his program was concerned about Sedaris before the Daisey episode. “We just assumed the audience was sophisticated enough to tell that this guy is making jokes and that there was a different level of journalistic scrutiny that we and they should apply,” he said.
But the Daisey debacle has brought about a reassessment. Glass said three responses are under discussion: fact-checking each of Sedaris’s stories to ensure their accuracy, labeling them to alert the audience that the stories contain “exaggerations” or doing nothing.
Personally, that seems fair enough. After all, Sedaris just wants find humor in unusual situations. He's not really targeting anyone. And, from the pieces of his that I've heard, the biggest target of his humor is himself, as he highlights the ridiculous situations ni which he finds himself.
Shalom Auslander
Not so Shalom Auslander.
Auslander, another fairly regular contributor to the show, regularly tells stories about his own childhood - and victimhood. As an Orthodox Jew, I find his pieces far less entertaining, as they target not Auslander himself, but Judaism - and specifically Orthodox Judaism. He ridicules and mocks the religiosity and piousness of the figures from his childhood, clearly still angry about an abusive father who mistreated him (as he tells it).
Take, for example, a story that was recently rerun on TAL about a teacher of Auslander's from grade school who told him that his name (Shalom) was in fact one of God's names, and therefore forced him to place any item with his name on it in the Shaimos box, designated for burial. As he tells it,
Life with God's name was more difficult than I imagined. I was annoyed with God for being so selfish with them all. He had 71 other names. I couldn't see why he'd mind so much if I used just one. I didn't want to tell God how to do his job, but I wondered if maybe there weren't bigger things for him to be worrying about than who was using one of his six dozen names without permission. Isn't this, I wondered, what led to holocausts?
The Shaimos Box in the prayer hall filled quickly: my homework, my test papers, my what-I-did-this-summer, even my Highlights For Children. And buried at the bottom of the box, a pair of underpants my mother had written my name on with permanent marker.
If this story is true, it is indeed fantastic: lunch bags and underpants in Shaimos? Any Orthodox Jew knows that we do indeed treat items of religious value with respect. We place matters with Torah writings in a special box designated for burial. But Jewish law limits these items to Torah articles, old books, worn Tefillin of significant religous value. To extend this practice to underpants would indeed be as ridiculous and foolish as Auslander implies that they were, making the Orthodoxy of his youth sound as silly and worthy of abandonment as he continues to demand that it was (and is).
And yet I wonder. Notice the nuance in the story, which begins with a subtle, but critical description of Rabbi Breyer, the villain of the tale:
Eli said that his big brother said that Rabbi Breyer once broke a student's nose by slapping the student's face. Dov said that his big brother said that Rabbi Breyer had once broken a student's arm when he was dragging the student from the room for talking during prayers. Rabbi Breyer was the scariest rabbi in the whole yeshiva.
He was a stocky man, wide as the doorway, with a long, rough beard and thick, angry hands, and everyone trembled that first day of third grade when he stomped heavily into the classroom, wrote his name on the blackboard, and shouted at Akiva for slouching in his seat. Nobody spoke during class. Nobody doodled in the margins of their prayer books. And when, at the end of the first test at the end of the first week, Rabbi Breyer shouted, "Pencils down," it was as if the commandment had come from God himself.
Auslander doesn't verify hat the rebbe broke the students' arms. The kids "said" that he had. Yet, he dangles these rumors as facts. Did the kids ever really say that, or did Auslander make it up? What does it mean for a rabbi to have "angry" hands? Of course his beard was "rough". Has Auslander ever met a rabbi with a "smooth beard" and "Gentle hands"?
Listening to his story, I had a difficult time believing that it was actually, factually true. It seemed much more like a composite story, gathering facts from different stories and characters from different parts of his life, to weave a unique tapestry worthy of publication. Was there a rebbe in his school who slapped students? I'm sure there was. But did he really make Auslander put everything with his name in it in Shaimos? I highly, highly doubt it.
I wonder whether Glass or the many producers of This American Life ever thought to verify the details in Auslander's stories. Because, unlike Sedaris, whose lighthearted stories are pointed squarely at himself, Auslander still clearly has his former faith in his sights.
And he shoots to kill.


  1. Rabbi,

    Read A foreskin's lament it will explain a lot.

  2. Auslander doesn't claim that the Rabbi broke the kids arm, either. He repeats the hearsay as hearsay. The point was that the kids believed it, not that it happened.

    As for the sheimos... who knows what happened? It sounds too specific to be *completely* made up (though it wouldn't surprise me if Auslander himself put the undies in there as a way to rebel). Let's face it - our religion has a lot of wacky adherents. Auslander's main problem is that he grew up with an abusive parent. He lashes out at Orthodoxy because his dogmatic religious community made things worse, rather than better, and he seems to have retained way too much simplistic hashkafa intended for elementary school students and never deepened his understanding as a teenager/adult.

    What I find relevant from his anger - and, boy is he angry - is twofold:
    1. Broken families really mess people up. It is far better to be open about the problems (addictions, abuse, etc.) we have in our community and address them than covering them up. Covering up problems just multiplies their impact.
    2. Too many of our yeshivot - even MO/DL yeshivot - still work under the most simplistic hashkafic frameworks. A 14 year old can have a surprisingly nuanced conversation about the Divine, yet we often still feed them The Midrash Says and wonder why they think its crap.


Comments transform a blog into a community. Please join.