Hester's Reviews > The Autobiography of God

The Autobiography of God by Julius Lester
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's review
Jan 08, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: american-writers, holocaust, judaism-and-jewish-issues, magic-realism, novels, non-genre-fiction, religion
Read in January, 2011

So deep and so dense. This book, with its profound questioning and occasional flights of fancy, is an intensely Jewish novel. That may seem obvious, seeing as it is about a rabbi, but it has so many Jewish characteristics. Firstly, it questions the status quo. Secondly, characters have more than one opinion. The Rosh Yeshiva is proud he trained a woman rabbi, but he doesn't believe in women rabbis. Thirdly, all the characters, including God, are spiritually flawed. The characters who hate and hurt others have redeeming qualities.

There is an appreciation for making every day experiences beautiful, not just through Rebecca's actions, but on a meta level, through Lester's prose. At the same time, Lester warns people not to be seduced by the beautiful. One can enjoy food, but Patric's relationship to quail at the expense is unhealthy. One can enjoy a woman's beauty, but one is not to objectify her with lust, as characters did to Allison and Rebbecca.

Jewish characters feel renewed by finding Jews in unexpected places(the scene with William Fein and Chai mountain is so sweet), and the main character is humbled by the realization that she needs to appreciate the gentiles around her. Her reaction to hearing Devora talk about Allison is heartbreaking. I did, however, find the description of Allison odd. I do not think I have ever met a woman who, against her will, drove all the men around her mad with desire. I live, however, in a community of very gentle men, who do not understand the type of obsession that drives the plot in this book.

One of the ideas that resonated with me is how important wounds are. Rebecca tells Evan to let his wound be his teacher. We see how Rebecca allowed her wound to teach her; she never limps on the inside, which protects her from Allison's fate. Her wound still teaches her throughout the novel, thirty years after it was inflicted. She learns that she needs to share her wound, and not use it to keep people out. I loved the brief story of how Brian Moon's wound helped him help so many others. Lester's vision of the best of humanity is of the walking wounded, who manage to face their hurt every day without self pity and use it to empathize with those around them.

The one way I found the book not so Jewish is its emphasis on mourning and death. Jews are forbidden to mourn excessively. One of our principles is "Choose Life." If someone dies at a wedding, you hide the body so the bride and groom will not be disturbed, and you ignore the death until after the wedding. Rebbecca, like so many children of Holocaust survivors, cannot choose life.

The book both rejects and accepts the idea of a Judeo-Christian tradition. When I was reading the reviews on Goodreads, I noticed that some people thought that the story devolved when Allison's plot was introduced. That is not a Jewish attitude. Rebbecca knew all about holiness, but in spite of her success as a therapist, she did not really know how to relate to people. She didn't understand that small talk is important. She didn't know how to hear Allison's cry for help. In the end, she is tried and tested. She needs to understand how important her fellow man is, and once she is confronted with God's humanity, she passes. It is a very Jewish idea to say that one person is equal to all of creation. Rebbecca had distanced herself from humanity and needed to understand that truth.

I loved Lester's vision of God as someone both wonderful and terrible. Rebecca's, and our, painful job is to learn to love God while condemning evil. We face the hard task of forgiving and comforting and holding ourselves to a higher standard. I am not sure I understand the book's last paragraph, but I found it beautiful.

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Susan I loved how Rebecca initially gets distracted and self-absorbed when she has to deal with Allison and I think Lester threw in the intervening chapters deliberately.

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