Tag Archives: Deborah Feldman

Oh Exodus, my Shemot, how empty you make me feel

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I am a bit embarrassed to say how long it took me to realize the significance of the title of the memoir. I want to say I was at least a third into the book before it quite literally dawned on me that Deborah Feldman was making a sort of a literary pun. Or at least to my non-writer eye, that’s how it came off. But anyway, here is my eureka moment that took about eighty pages to come.

The uniqueness of a sequel is the very fact that it gives the reader an opportunity to see what happens next. One of the most obvious (or you know, 80 pages into it) ways to view Deborah Feldman’s Exodus is as a parallel to the story of the actual biblical Exodus. At the end of her last book, like Moses and the rest of the Jews, Feldman leaves behind all of the familiar institutions and places never to come back. She steps out in to the wilderness of America in search of her own land of milk and honey, the land where she can both put down her roots and discover once again what it means to be herself. And like Biblical Jews, Feldman wanders in the desert that is the world of non-Satmar. Each chapter of Exodus is organized as a way to look at different ways that Feldman explores the American wilderness. With chapter names such as “inheritance”, “enlightenment” and “reincarnation” Feldman explores living on her own for the first time, while inexplicably still attempting to find some kind of a  connection to the family she left behind, or perhaps her root. She travels to Europe to get in touch with her beloved grandmother’s Holocaust survival story and almost magically finds the graves of her great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother in an overgrown field where all the other tombstones have long since been erased. She explores relationships with various men that she herself chooses in contrast to her former arranged marriage. She travels across United States in search of a new home exploring Colorado, Utah, Chicago. She searches, searches, searches, for herself. And according to the last page of the book, she finds herself

I will admit that this time around, there were quite a lot more things that I had a hard time swallowing and believing. For large portions of the book, Feldman’s son is barely mentioned. She mentions him briefly in the context of the fact that both of them were unable to fit in the other Jewish neighborhoods in New York. She mentions him staying with his father during summer vacations. But mostly, throughout more than two hundred pages of the book, she makes no mention of him at all. Considering that her son’s future was just a driving force for Feldman to leave her community, the omission bothered me. Maybe this was Feldman’s decision due to her son’s young age or because of consideration for  her ex-husband. Either way, it sat oddly with me.

The plot line itself was bot as compelling and urgent as Unorthodox. Chronology jumped all over the places. There were flashbacks within flashbacks and often it was hard to find cohesion between chapters. In some ways they were almost like individual short stories stitched together into a semblance of a book. Don’t get me wrong, the writing and emotion evoked by the writing felt genuine enough, but as a flowing story, it lacked greatly. This may seem like an odd interpretation but the book’s structure struck as almost, I don’t know, too writery. It felt as if she was trying way too hard to make it seem like a serious opus. And in doing so, she lost a lot of the free flowing, seamless transition. Ok, I will just come out and say it, I like things to be told chronologically. There is absolutely nothing wrong with flashbacks, but as a reader I’d like to be able to figure out WHEN thing are happening.

I think the thing that bothered me the most was Feldman’s utter naivete. I will give her kudos for admitting this to the world, but once again, I can’t see that I believed it. It’s one thing to just be coming out of the world of enclosure. I get that it takes years to get acclimated to new life, to catch up on the news, to meet new people, to get enough of television, movies, food, you name it. But for several years before she left, Feldman was getting in touch with the secular world by reading secular materials, by eating unkosher food, etc so her culture shock couldn’t have been THAT bad. Yet she wants me to believe that racism in New Orleans and anti-semitism in Europe caught her completely off guard. This after several years (or hell maybe it was the next month since her chronology is impossible to follow) of living on the outside of the Satmar world.  In some ways, I felt like she almost fetishized certain aspects of American life, or I don’t know, maybe bought into stereotypes. I mean, what are the chances of her starting her drive across the county in San Francisco on Pride weekend after meeting many “typical” Bay Area people with their hippie lifestyle and non-judgemental living? Then of course there is the typical American males she dates and one can’t forget the blonde, blue eyed jock American convert to Judaism that she wishes to have met before he “turned.”

Do I really buy that Feldman belongs? I buy that SHE thinks so which is I guess what matters most. But I didn’t really see it. All the fluttering about and suddenly she declares herself to belong. Maybe if her story flowed together better, I could see how Feldman came to a place of belonging but instead, I just felt confused and scattered. Frankly, I think she is still wandering in the desert.

From the fingertips of Eugenia S

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Thoughts so far

It had been hard to predict what to expect from a sequel to a book like Unorthodox. Often enough memoirs leave the reader at the last page with a nice sense of closure. You think, aha, so now she is out of her prison, her life can begin, she is free to be like me, here is her happy ending. The end. What is unique in a well crafted sequel is the ability to pick up right at the point where the original stopped off and create not a new chapter but an entirely new story. I can’t say that Exodus reads well as a stand alone book, because without the context of the original, the struggles in the sequel fall in the category of why should I care? But as a “What Happens Next”, Exodus has been a trove of intimate information that i felt was missing from Unorthodox. Unorthodox was about breaking out of prison. So far Exodus is solely about the person Deborah Feldman is now that Satmar affiliation does not define her. Its the ultimate identity search. I’ve been enjoying the journey of discovery right along with Deborah.

From the fingertips of Eugenia S

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So far the winner is

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Methinks this shall be the next review after all. I am about 65 pages into the book and quite interesting so far. It’s a very different feel from Unorthodox. What I mean by that is the book feels less rushed by the necessity to capture everything in Feldman’s life and has so far presented a very micro look at both her life post the break from Satmar and certain specifics about her past that were previously just barely touched upon. Look for lots of psychoanalysis in my mid-read thoughts and subsequent review. Feldman is certainly undergoing a hell of a lot of therapy.

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Too many choices are paralyzing

I feel like switching up right now. I know I’ve been saying for a month that I want to do Maggie Anton’s book next but last night it dawned on me that last time I went to the library (yes actual physical building that happens to be conveniently two blocks away from my work), I grabbed only books that would be blog appropriate. So there are three (count them three!)books that seem exceptionally promising sitting on my desk right now gathering dust while instead I am reading about George III on my tablet. How am I over-committing myself already? Its only going to be my fifth review.

So…….I shall be choosing amongst the three very different books below (interesting how all the covers feature woman but only in Anton’s book do we actually see a face – must because in the ancient times women were less shy about their faces?). Maybe I’ll review the next one. Maybe I will read for pleasure of it alone.

So it may be I will next find myself in Babylon with Hisdadukh or Istanbul with Hannah amongst the opulence of the Ottoman court. Or perhaps in NYC again with the sequel to Unorthodox.

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From the fingertips of Eugenia S

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Review of Deborah Feldman’s “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.”

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I didn’t have to labor through Unorthodox but my mind rebelled greatly against dropping it practically every time some example of what I perceived as backwardness reared its head. And it happened A LOT. There are so many points in the memoir that were heartbreaking. So many times when I felt claustrophobic. Many times when I cringed and hugged myself. And so many times that I thanked my lucky stars to have been born where I was. And this is coming from someone born in Soviet Ukraine with its open policy of religious and ethnic repression.

Unorthodox is the memoir of Deborah Feldman’s life and subsequent breaking away from the Satmar Hasidic community in New York. A daughter of a mentally ill father (whose specific illness is never clear) and a mother who left the community, Feldman is raised by her deeply religious grandparents, both European Holocaust survivors. The Satmar community they live in Williamsburg is a deeply Hasidic community of followers of the charismatic Rebbe of Satmar ( a Hungarian city of Satu Mare). Feldman lives the life of a typical Satmar girl: learning to cook with her grandmother and fearing to disappoint her grandfather, going to school to learn what is expected of a good Jewish woman, and dreaming about getting married and becoming independent. But her life is not enough because Feldman never feels she be song’s whether because her parents are not really around or because she simply wants more. Even as she goes through the steps expected of her in agreeing to a match with a man she barely knows, Feldman doubts what her true path should be. Instead of rooting her in her community, the failure of her marriage breaks her further away until she eventually leaves her community behind.

Feldman invited a hell of a lot criticism with her book. After if I finished reading, I decided to take a gander online to find out a bit more about Feldman. There are websites out there literally devoted to denouncing her for the lies about the community. Her parents’ divorce documents are shown, her childhood photos are touted and he friends decry that she never indicated she was unhappy and that she had dramatized her life and blackened her religion and painted them as backward monsters, fundamentalists and criminals. Is it true? Feldman only knows, and I found her story compelling and too many things about it rang too true to be lies. But take a read and judge for yourself.

These are some of the things I learned about the Satmar from Feldman’s book :

  1. They do not much care for the English language, spoken or written and they actually forbid the reading of all materials they perceive as secular
  2. Satmar women shave their heads fully unlike their Orthodox sisters. Wearing human hair wigs is also frowned upon.
  3. Satmar education offers bare minimum of US educational curriculum requirements. Meaning they do not even offer the equivalent of a high school diploma.
  4. Matchmaking for the Satmar begins in their teens and an unmarried man or woman beyond the age of 20 is considered somewhat of an embarrassment. Also, until the oldest child is married, it is not considered proper for the younger siblings to marry.
  5. On average, two weeks of every month Satmar women spend “unclean” and their men are forbidden from touching them. I don’t need to get graphic but let it suffice to be said, that they have to show proof of their cleanliness to a rabbi if they are not positive they are ready to be touched.
  6. Satmar community has zero sex education. Women are discouraged from exploring their bodies. Men apparently turn to each other to get off and very often the newly wed do not have any idea how to consummate their marriage with the least worrisome side effect being prolonged non-consummation to the most worrisome need for an ER visit.
  7. Abuse of all varieties is tolerated, from coping feels in the ritual mikvah (ritual cleansing bath) to child abuse.
  8. Satmar follow their own laws, from having their own ambulances to their own police, and don’t seem to find the need to adhere to the law of the land.
  9. Any Jew who is not a Satmar, is not considered a Jew. We are all gentiles if we are not Satmar, even if we simply stopped following their rules.

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Mid-read thoughts on Unorthodox

Reading about the Satmar Hasidic community of  Williamsburg, NY is bringing up all sorts of emotions in me right now. Distaste, surprise, worry, apprehension, pity, anger and any number of SAT prep words I didn’t learn until college. Incidentally? College was not an option for Deborah Feldman. Neither was reading English books. Or speaking English. Or associating with English speakers who have no souls. Or. Or. Or.

The list of don’ts has been blowing my mind. Me who considers herself such an expert on the Orthodox community. That “expert opinion” comes from the couple of dozen visits to my brother’s community in Ocean County, NJ and Philadelphia. “You know nothing, Eugenia” are the words that are coming to mind. In comparison, my brother’s brand of Judaism might as well cast him as a non Jew with the Satmar. He has technology in his house. His wife does not shave her head. Their children will have a valid high school diploma. They may choose to go to college. They speak better English than Hebrew and they don’t wish the state of Israel to perish.

I know nothing.

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