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Jewish Journal

Deborah Feldman’s Hasidic ‘Exodus’

by Elaine Margolin

May 8, 2014 | 12:23 pm

I’m still so worried about Deborah Feldman, the young woman who fled the Satmar Hasidic community in Brooklyn with her small son in tow, and a flood of childhood memories, both horrifying and wonderful.  She chronicled her turbulent early life in her first book, a surprise bestseller, called “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” and now she continues her compelling story in “Exodus: A Memoir” (Blue Rider Press, $26.95).

Feldman wrote with bracing candor and rawness about her paternal grandparents, both of whom were Holocaust survivors from Hungary.  They raised her after her mother abandoned her, and her father, due to mental incapacities, was unable to care for her.  Feldman admits she was always well-fed and provided for, but remembers her childhood as suffused with feelings of emotional isolation and maternal deprivation.  Her grandparents had already raised 11 children before taking young Deborah in, and each grandparent had suffered grievous losses under Hitler.  Her grandmother lost almost a dozen siblings and her parents in Auschwitz, and survived only by being miraculously chosen for work duty instead of being instantly gassed along with the rest of her family upon arrival.  Although she never spoke directly about the past, she continued to light yahrzeit candles for each one of them every single day; a subversive act since Jewish law permits the mourning period to last only one year, but she refused to stop.  Young Deborah found her grandmother distant and perplexing, which left her restless and anxious for something more.  There were brief moments of closeness when they cooked together, or worked outside in her grandmother’s beloved garden, but most of the time she felt utterly alone and enveloped by silence.  The rules of Orthodox life seemed to provide a prison of sorts that somehow was able to contain her grandmother’s grief, but for Deborah it was always just a prison and one that grew more ruthless with time.

Deborah felt stigmatized at school because of her own mother’s abandonment and her father’s inadequacies, which her Aunt Chaya continued to remind her brought shame upon her.  It was Aunt Chaya who arranged for her to marry at 17, a man Deborah knew for less than an hour, and one who came from a family more stringent than her own.   The marriage was a disaster from the beginning, and the young couple had tremendous difficulty consummating it which brought them further scorn from both families who interfered noisily in the most personal of realms.  Deborah, now close to new levels of despair, began to fantasize about escaping which she did shortly after giving birth to her son Isaac.  She had secretly enrolled in a creative writing course unbeknownst to her husband and it was there with new friends that she hatched a plan, almost Katie Holmes style, that had her safely situated elsewhere with legal counsel by the time her husband understood her intentions never to return.  But what now?  Where should she go?  How could she support herself?  Whom could she trust?  Where would Isaac go to school?  How would she navigate single motherhood and the temptations of the secular world?  How could she reinvent herself as a Jew outside of the restrictions of the Satmar community?  Her new book attempts to tell us.

The first months on her own are incredibly confusing.   The joys of wearing form-fitting clothing and smoking and eating whatever she pleases and trying to date and make new friends are dampened by insomnia and anxiety that refuses to desist.  Her emotionally packed narrative voice keenly captures the racing mindset of a young fragile person who is alone and lonely; uncomfortable with others.  She begins making impulsive decisions, some that flirt with recklessness.  She has a few one-night stands but finds them unfulfilling.  She enters into a few longer long-distance relationships with men that soon fray, and begins obsessing about finding a perfect spot to put down roots as if some magical place might really exist that will wash away her sorrow.  Manhattan disappoints her and overwhelms her.  So does reconnecting with her mother with whom she feels uncomfortable.  She begins to take road trips and finds herself self-conscious as a Jew amidst Gentiles in vast swatches of America that are far from New York City.

She attempts to find comfort with a “healer” of sorts who places rocks and precious stones upon her as she closes her eyes and listens to his requests to reach inside herself and locate her inner pain and anger.  Most of the time, her head simply hurts.  She poses naked for a man who wishes to paint her, and takes up with a German guy whose own mother’s parents revered Hitler.  She feels drained by the ongoing negotiations with her husband about their son and the custody arrangements they need to work out.  In frustration, she considers the possibility that she may not have the ability to “form real and lasting connections.  The system that everyone else uses seems closed off to me…I suspect I am not the average loner.   For my entire life I have occupied an enclosed mental space that no one has managed to penetrate…Perhaps I’ve chosen loneliness because it is my language.” 

But eventually and ironically it is thoughts of her grandmother whom she has not seen or spoken to since her departure that dominate her thoughts.  She writes candidly “If I could piece together the journey my grandmother had taken before she landed in the lap of the Satmar Hasids, somehow I could put into context my own journey out and back into the larger world she had once inhabited.  In a sense, I would be able to clarify my own displacement only in the context of hers.  If I came home empty-handed, I worried, I’d never achieve context for my own life.  We are, sometimes, simply reduced to where we come from--if not in the most immediate sense, then in an ancestral one.  I was convinced that the angst that flowed in my veins was a result of more than just my childhood, that it was part of a greater composite inheritance that I was only a fragmentary part of.”  Armed with folders filled with information and photographs about her grandmother’s life in Hungary before the war that she took with her when she fled Brooklyn, she leaves to trace her grandmother’s footsteps in Europe, both before and after the apocalypse. 

She writes with love and tenderness about her grandmother, a love she clearly feels for no one else: “There was no elegance in Hasidic life, but there was elegance in her, in her origins, in her story, and in her inimitable cooking…I cherished the photos taken of her as a young woman in gorgeous hand-sewn dresses with rows of tiny cloth buttons.  I loved the way her slim ankles looked in delicate T-strap shoes.  There was something about her loveliness and poise, which stood in sharp contrast to a photograph I found in her drawer, one of her being carried out from Bergen-Belsen on a stretcher from the British Red Cross.  To embody beauty after you had endured the ugliest of assaults, that was magic to me.  I surmised that there was something very powerful at the core of my grandmother’s spirit.”

As there is in Deborah Feldman’s.  Her choking and somewhat chaotic voice which initially is filled with longing and bitter confusion slowly gives way to the first nuggets of adult wisdom; and perhaps even the beginnings of forgiveness and acceptance.  She does not present herself as a heroic figure and that is what is so threatening about her story to those she left behind as numerous blog posts reveal.  She simply claims her own truth, aware that it is hers alone.  She presents her open wounds and scars, and tries to understand the internal hurts other people carry.  She misses her grandmother; who for all intensive purposes was her mother; the only one she ever had.

Deborah Feldman reminds me of Lena Dunham’s autobiographically based “Hannah” on the hit HBO series “Girls.”  Both women seem hungry for an intensity of experience and a closeness with others that continually eludes them.  Both seem deeply affected by maternal figures that were too distracted and ill-equipped to meet their needs.  Both can act rashly and hurt others before realizing it.  They are awkward and clumsy and vulnerable to obsessive thoughts that threaten to overwhelm them.  Both need to remain vigilant to keep both their real and imaginary demons at bay.  Both have tremendous creative abilities of self-expression that have the capacity to save them or smother them.  I’m still worried about Deborah Feldman.

Elaine Margolin is a frequent book reviewer for the Jewish Journal and other publications.

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