Tonight, just 10 years ago, I was sitting on the sofa in my apartment in a New York loft, with my three-year-old son asleep in the double bed that barely fit in our tiny bedroom, and I opened the rickety laptop to start a manuscript that after a few months would become Unorthodox.
Back then, I wrote out of fits and starts, almost always at night, when my college classmates went out to bars and restaurants while I, who had no one to leave my son with, stayed at home. I remember that the future seemed strangely compressed to me, like an accordion when all the air has been expelled. I only felt capable of thinking about the following week or, at most, a month beyond. I was alone and scared. During the day, taking care of my son kept me distracted and I didn’t think about the worst, but during the long empty nights I had nothing but my manuscript, which was a gift and a curse alike.
In November 2009, he had written about 20,000 words; Most of my work was still ahead of me. She was 23 years old and had never written anything serious, not even a newspaper article or story. I felt like I had set myself an unreachable goal.
Writing a book was necessary if you wanted to be free to start a new life outside of our community. The publicity it would offer me would be a way to put pressure on those people who had always taken my voice away
Writing a book was part of a more ambitious plan, it was necessary if I really wanted to be free to start a new life with my son outside our community. The publicity that he would offer me would serve as a tool, as my lawyer explained to me, it would be a way of putting pressure on those people who had always taken away my voice and, with it, force. It was about convincing them to let me go, that it was not worth fighting for.
Of course, I knew that I could consider myself very lucky to have signed a contract to write a book at my age, especially given my lack of experience. However, I remember thinking that if I had enjoyed the luxury of choosing, I would have preferred not to become a writer until I was properly prepared for it. Since then, I have learned that the ideal preparation for writing does not exist, there is only the act of writing itself. Even so, at that time, the practical motivations to carry out the book weighed so heavily on me that I didn’t exactly experience it as an act of creative expression; rather, I felt like I was knotting a rope ladder with which I would escape to safety. I thought that this was not “really writing”. Real writing was not something you did to ensure your own survival … and no doubt my readers would notice.
However, that windy autumn night, for want of something better to do, I opened the laptop and started typing, telling myself that I had to do my part and let fate take care of the rest. I did not write what I had originally foreseen, I did not stick to my sketch, which indicated that I should follow a strict chronological order. I just dipped into a childhood memory and described it as if I was reliving it at the time. Then I immersed myself even more in another memory, and in another one, and the process began to become intuitive, as if I could close the door to that part of me obsessed with sketches, chapters, characters and all those things I had learned in the workshops. of college writing, and I would just rely on an inner voice that I hadn’t found in a long time. And I don’t know how, when, four hours later, I looked up, it was already midnight and I had finished half the manuscript.
Now, after several years have passed, I am working on my first novel in German and I still have weeks, if not months, waiting for that inspiration to come back to me; They are lapses of time where sitting down to write means feeling trapped inside my rational brain, trapped building stories like rope ladders, until finally the muse returns and my fingers slide feverishly over the keyboard while the rest of me She is paralyzed, as if she were in a trance. Time seems to stop, and I feel like floating outside my body. That inspiration has returned over the years, although not as often as I would have liked, but over time I have come to understand that it has always been there, ready and made, and that it is I who have not always tolerated its presence. Because it comes from the past, and the rest of me tries to be completely in the present so as not to feel so much the burden of everything that I lived then. We are two women, one lost and one who has been found, still trying to find a way to collaborate to tell a story.
Towards the end of UnorthodoxI write that I feel as if I have annihilated my old self to make room for my new identity; my memories were to be his last words. However, 10 years ago it was neither in my past nor in my present. I was in a kind of limbo, and that’s why Unorthodox it is the book that it is, because it was written in a state of intermediate weightlessness, terrifying as well as magical. If I had taken the time to prepare myself, if I had waited to write it more maturely – now, for example – I would certainly have finished it, but it would not have been the book it should be and it would not have caused the raw and heartbreaking impact that the readers have described me. The reason why Unorthodox It is so crude it is because it was so, because I was surrounded by crudeness while writing it, and that is not something easy to recreate in retrospect.
After getting rid of the skin of my old self, I didn’t suddenly discover a more authentic version underneath. When you have to leave your whole life behind with ax blows, you don’t have much left to move on. It takes you a decade to build your new identity and your new life, and if someone had told me how hard it would be, maybe I wouldn’t have dared to accept the challenge.
Still, he didn’t expect it to be easy, either. I couldn’t imagine a fairy tale ending, and I think that helped me. Happiness has a habit of playing hide and seek when you are looking for it, but it often surprises you when you least expect it. I found my version of happiness in Berlin. If someone had predicted it ten years ago, the idea would have seemed hilarious, almost crazy.
Leaving the ultra-Orthodox community has gone from being an anomaly to constituting a movement. Before you could count on the fingers of the hands the people who had left now number in the thousands
I have been living in Berlin for five years. I am not the only one of mine who has found a home here. Berlin is full of refugees and fugitives of all kinds, including a community of ex-Khadija and Orthodox Jews. Partly it is because Berlin is that: a city that, as its inhabitants joke, was built on sand and swamps, without roots, and is perfect for those who have left theirs behind, but also for those who have been taken away from them. against your will. However, it should also be borne in mind that the past becomes much more bearable when you physically move away from it. New York City is still the dream of many young people, but for me it is a backyard full of corpses, a maze of familiar faces that only brings back bad memories. What others are looking for in New York I have found in Berlin.
Last summer the production of a four-episode miniseries inspired by the book I wrote 10 years ago. The series was shot in my native language, Yiddish, on Berlin sets and with an incredible team of Judeo-German, Judeo-American and German women. (Some men also participated.) Bring the story of Unorthodox to the screen was a dream that took root in Berlin, and which, I am convinced, was only possible here. Finding women capable of bringing so much wisdom and passion to the project – and such a willingness to explore new territory – is something you would never have imagined before arriving in this city, a place where creative expression hardly knows any of the conventional limits.
One of the biggest surprises when creating Unorthodox, the Netflix series, was that it magically attracted men and women with pasts similar to mine. They came to work as actors and extras, as consultants and translators, and at one point being on the set was almost like attending a particularly emotional gathering. In the end, the story told in the series, although inspired by the events of my own life, is also much more. It is the story of many people compressed into one, a story that could be mine or someone else’s; including yours, reader. Although small details have been changed, the themes of pain, conflict, loneliness and humiliation remain the same. So witness how the book of Unorthodox became the series of Unorthodox it was like contemplating the history of my own life becoming part of a larger cultural narrative, a phenomenon that has been deeply gratifying to me. When I was younger, I read books about Muslim rebels and Christians, and later I saw movies about them, too, but I always found it difficult to identify with those stories. The greatest achievement of this series is its ability to serve as an example of a journey that many have taken and for which, however, there are still no detailed maps.
Over the past decade, leaving the ultra-Orthodox community has gone from being an anomaly to being a movement. Before, people who had left there could be counted on the fingers of their hands. Now, they number in the thousands, disappear in the anonymity of large cities around the world, reinvent themselves as best they can. Some even showed up to work as extras in Berlin, on a set where their mother tongue was spoken, where they could feel instantly recognized and where the story they helped tell was very similar to their own. For the former rabbi and teenage fugitive, for the Fulbright scholarship student and the man who had changed the course of his life by reaching the crisis of the forties, the scenes we filmed contained a truth that spoke to each of us in a primeval language.
A few weeks ago, when I was able to see all the episodes after the first editing phase, I finally became aware of the magnitude of what we had created together and understood that Unorthodox it was no longer mine. He had released him and in doing so Unorthodox he had released me.
Berlin, November 2019.
Unorthodox. My true story. Deborah Feldman. Translation by Laura Martín de Dios and Laura Manero Jiménez. Lumen, 2020. 392 pages. Paper: 20.90 euros. Digital: 9.99 euros.