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