By Stuart Nulman – Montreal Times
When Deborah Feldman published Unorthodox, her memoir of her life as a female member of the ultra orthodox Satmar Chasidic sect in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and how the closed in, repressive way of life compelled her to rebel and break free from that community, it became an immediate best seller, mainly because of her brave story and a rare look into such an insular religious sect.
And now, Feldman is back to continue that story with Exodus, which tells of how she used her newfound freedom towards a journey of self-discovery and revelation. However, she admits that the choice of that title wasn’t the first one she had in mind.
“I had a different title in mind for this book; I wanted to called it Second Coming, which comes from a poem by William Butler Yeats,” she said. “But my publisher David Rosenthal felt strongly that Exodus was the right title for the book, because it summed up the content of the book. It took some convincing, but I eventually agreed.”
“Somehow, it’s kind of ironic, because in a way, the title Exodus means reclaiming a story, a story that doesn’t belong to me. When you think of Exodus, you think of the chosen people who go to the Promised Land; but I am not one of those chosen people, because I am an exiled, excommunicated person,” said Feldman in a recent phone interview.
Feldman believes that the story she tells in Exodus is more of a wandering adventure of a person trying to discover who she really is, and got the opportunity to know herself better. One way was to embark on different journeys around the world, especially to Hungary and Sweden, where she found out the tragic background of her beloved grandmother who survived the Holocaust. “My relationship with my grandmother defined my childhood; it was the only loving relationship that I knew,” she said. “She never made the decision to join the Chasidic community, and she was very distinct from that community. In fact, I felt more defined that I was raised by a Holocaust survivor, because that was a way of figuring out the place I had in the larger world; it became the core of my identity than being known as being Chasidic.”
After discovering the details in a Swedish archive of her grandmother’s ordeal and survival in the Nazi concentration camps that she kept hidden for so many years, Feldman learned not to hide her pain that she got from her repressive upbringing and loveless marriage from her son Isaac, and discusses her painful past with him whenever he raises the subject to her. She also became obsessed with the Holocaust, reading countless books by survivors such as Primo Levi, which helps her better understand the miracle that was the survival of her grandmother during that dark period. “That pain is not behind me yet; I am still struggling to come to terms with it,” she admits.
Although she has come to terms with the amount of criticisms and personal attacks she has endured with the publication of both books, Feldman has also accepted the fact that she will always be a controversial and polemic figure as a result of the popularity of her memoirs. However, this hasn’t stopped her from continuing her journey of self-discovery. She is planning a trip to Israel (“ I have never been there before,” she admits. “Somehow I have been put into a position to have opinions about Israel, so I need to go there and know more about it.”). As well, she plans to visit India, in which she is seeking material for another book she is about to write about globalization and trying to understand the evolution of ethnic identity. There is also a documentary in the works about a group of different women who were raised in oppressive backgrounds and are trying to find their sexuality in a liberal world (which will also evolve into a companion book), as well as a novel. For Deborah Feldman, the wandering adventure towards self-realization and self healing will continue for an indefinite period of time.
Overall, Exodus is a satisfying sequel to Unorthodox, which shows how Deborah Feldman went on to the next step after getting her own freedom from the bonds of a strictly insular society.
As well, it’s a memoir that serves as a chronicle of a continuing journey of self-discovery, where from Hungary, to Germany to across the United States, she finds out not only her Jewish roots (and the massive tragedy that was the Holocaust), but also the cold reality of how widespread anti-Semitism is in today’s world. There are many satisfying finds and revelations along the road, but there are also plenty of bumps, frustrations, disappointments and pitfalls, which is expected when one spends their formative years being closed off from the rest of the outside world, and is confined to the boundaries of a Brooklyn neighborhood.
Although some readers maybe disappointed that there are very few references to the reactions of her Satmar community after her departure from her insular life and the resulting publication of Unorthodox, this book is more about the liberation of Deborah Feldman, and how she copes with this newfound sense of freedom and self-discovery, that can be a shock to some, or a declaration of independence for others.
Stuart Nulman’s “Book Banter” segment is a twice-a-month feature on “The Stuph File Program” with Peter Anthony Holder, which now has almost 150,000 listeners per week. You can either listen or download it at peteranthonyholder.com, Stitcher.com or subscribe to it on iTunes. Plus you can find it at CyberStationUSA.com, KDXradio.com, True Talk Radio, streaming on PCJMedia.com, and over the air at World FM 88.2fm in New Zealand, Media Corp in Singapore and WSTJ, St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Stuart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org