Tag Archives: memoir

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


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


1 Comment

Filed under Reviews

So far the winner is


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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Midread thoughts

My three minutes in Poland – dedicated to victims and survivors


I will start my review with a disclaimer. Below are my musings on this amazing book, not what I would call a review in any strict sense.

Why this book?
I first came across this story a few months ago. One of the Jewish groups I am a member of on Facebook, posted a link to a video that was described as showing a few moments in a Polish shtetl on the eve of World War II. I clicked on the link, watched the video and promptly almost burst out in tears at my desk. I’ve watched my share of documentaries on the atrocities of the Nazi genocide and both “Schindler’s List” and “The Pianist” made me cry so hard that I had given myself migraines. So I thought myself if not immune, then at least somewhat stronger in what I can handle. It’s an entirely different experience to watch the dead when they are visibly dead. It’s heartbreaking. It’s monstrous. But you CAN’T do a thing about it. It’s a whole other kind of hell to watch happy people crowding around a camera hoping to see what’s going on, hoping to get on film, or completely oblivious of the fact that a camera is recording their every moves knowing that within a number of years that one can count on a single hand most of them would be murdered. How do you reconcile the knowledge of the end with visions of mundane times? And then while indulging in my weekly search for a new book to read through my library, I stumbled on Glenn Kurtz’s ” Three Minutes in Poland,” the book spawn of the film. I will honestly admit that I was crying while still reading the intro. This was some feat as I began reading it while commuting to work on a local train and local train ride is not a place where one wants to admit vulnerability.

The story
So how does a film strip translate into a book? In 2009 Glenn Kurtz stumbles on a film of his grandparents’ long ago European vacation while going through stored items at his parents’ house in Florida. Amongst such popular European tourist “traps” as Paris and Switzerland, for merely a day in 1938 David and Lena (Liza) Kurtz visit a Polish town Nasielsk where David was born in the late 1880s and shoot three short minutes in a life of the largely Jewish shtetl a mere year before the Nazi occupation. Its three minutes of sweeping panoramic views of the town’s pride and joy, the synagogue, three minutes of children jumping into the screen, three minutes of people going about their day oblivious to the camera, never in the know what is just around the corner.  Kurtz, however, is not oblivious to the significance of the film and gets in touch with the Holocaust Museum in DC to get the film restored and documented as part of the Steven Spielberg Video and Film archive. The entirety of the 14 minute film (both in color and black-and-white) including the 3 minutes in Poland are now available for view at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and can be viewed at this link. The David Kurtz Collection </a

The story could have ended there but in fact it was just the beginning. A granddaughter of a Nasielsk man viewed the video and recognized her grandfather in a thirteen year full faced boy angling for screen time in several separate moments of the film. She got in touch with the Holocaust Museum and eventually Kurtz himself. This discovery took him away from the novel he was trying to write and sent him in a multi-year and multi continent search (even into the bitch of a Polish irrigation ditch) to learn about Nasielsk, to tell as many stories of the Nasielskers still alive and to identify as many people in the film as possible and tell their stories. In the course of the search we meet Morry, Grace, Lesley and others, the few remaining Holocaust survivors of the 80 Jews from the 3,000 strong Jewish community. From some Kurtz learns about Orthodox childhood in a Jewish town. From others he learns gossip from the long ago. From most he learns about their survival in the sea of death. And to all of them Kurtz brings back painful memories while putting them once more face to photo with their neighbors, friends, and parents for the first time since 1939.

Lessons of “Three Minutes”
So. I loved this book. I didn’t want to stop reading it. I cried. I smiled. I cried again. And I was filled with love for my people and their strength. This book was a bright light from the time of shadows. It made me once again consider the miracle of my grandparents’ survival. Like some of the Nasielskers, my maternal grandparents were evacuated from their homes to other lands, in their case, Central Asia where they eventually met each other. And like some others, my paternal grandparents spent the war years in the ghetto but were saved by the miracle of geographic chance. They were lucky and here I am. The times for the Jews are once again trying. Anti-Semitism is not eradicated. There is still plenty of hate and violence. This is why it is important to remember these stories, and to give them life. Kurtz says “It’s going back and saying, Yes, there was a world.” This is the world that we must remember, honor and cherish. This is the world of Nasielsk, of Shargorod, of Warsaw, of Vilna, of Kiev. As a child of survivors and the heir of those that made it and those that did not, it is my responsibility to share their story. And in the trying times of today when a Jewish fraternity in my alma mater, UC Davis, gets defaced by swastikas, when a kosher supermarket in Paris gets attacked and people within are killed because of who they are, I must stand up and say along with Kurtz, “In a place where there is no person to make a difference, strive to be that person.”

In time for the Auschwitz Liberation Day, this is dedicated equally to victims and survivors.

Additional information
For those interested, here are a few more interesting relevant links.
1. A link from a talk Kurtz did for Ted.

2. Glenn Kurtz’s page about the book

3. Washington Post Review


Filed under Personal Reflections, Reviews