What came after the ‘Unorthodox’ story is a journey to the heart of the Holocaust


What came after the 'Unorthodox' story is a journey to the heart of the Holocaust

Deborah Feldman is 35 years old, but she looks older. It is not about his physique, but about an essential gravity in his body language and in the seriousness with which he listens and speaks. He laughs when I tell him. “I have little in common with people my age. Most of my friends are 10 or 20 years older than me. I was raised by older people, Holocaust survivors, and I’ve always felt like I belong to another era.”

In a sense, Feldman grew up in another era. She spent the first 23 years of her life in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community (the Satmar, a Hasidic group), in the Williamsbourg neighborhood (New York), with strict rules – especially for women – that governed every aspect of her life.

In 2009, with a three-year-old son and very little knowledge of the real world, she fled that life. He told it in a book Unorthodox (Lumen), which in 2020 acquired serial format and triumphed on Netflix for a few months, those of confinement, in which the audience understood their need to flee. Now, he has just published the continuation of that story, Exodus (Lumen).

Unorthodox He had, at the time, a very specific objective: to get enough media attention so that the lawyers of the Hasidic community would renounce to take away custody of his son. It worked, so why post a second part? “The publisher that bought Unorthodox he immediately wanted a sequel. And my editor had a very concrete idea about what I should write: a story of sex, drugs and rock and roll, of the bad girl I was going to become. “Feldman replaces his big round glasses and smiles.” I didn’t even know who he was at that time, much less the life he was going to lead. And I assure you that there are better candidates for telling a story of sex and drugs. “He tried, anyway, and published a text that he hated. Years later, when he was already living in Berlin, his German editor wanted to translate Exodus And before her refusal (“that book is the reason why I no longer want to be a writer,” she told her), she proposed to rewrite it.

By now, Feldman knew perfectly well what he wanted to tell or, rather, what he wanted to investigate: “What does identity mean, and what does it mean to be Jewish, how do you rebuild yourself from nothing, how do you learn, through the traumas of other people? , to overcome your own traumas. None is a question that has much to do with sex, drugs and rock and roll. But each book finds its readers. And it is enough for me to know that mine can reach the right people, and what about may inspire them to go on their own journeys. “

Because Exodus it is the story of a journey, both mental and physical: the one that Deborah made, in search of her history and her identity, through Europe. “There was no place for me in the American identity. Nor could I go back to my old identity. I was in a no man’s land and I felt that if I went back to where my community came from, if I discovered who my grandparents were before joining the satmar , and what European Jews were like before the war, before that great trauma… I’d find out if there was a bigger place in Jewish identity, with room for someone like me. “

Although his connection to Europe was immediate (“everything speaks to me here,” he says), he soon found that his Jewish legacy was less than he expected. “Jews are conceived of as exiles, and their whole history in Europe consists of waiting for the messiah to save them and in the meantime accepting oppression as punishment for the destruction of the temple. So I understand why they left so little mark. But we were part of European culture and they managed to erase us. My frustration was an emotional experience, not a rational one. “

In Córdoba, that frustration reached the degree of indignation: he could not understand why there were no more testimonies of Jewish culture in the city of Maimonides. Irritated, she bought a pendant with a Star of David, with the idea of ​​publicly identifying herself. He no longer wears it. “Today, the star is, above all, the symbol of the flag of Israel – he explains -, and my opinion about that country is very personal: in the West, it is still understood as a democratic and secular nation, but it is moving towards a theocracy and, in a certain sense, towards a biblical vision of the land of Israel, with all that this implies, distancing itself from democratic values ​​and human rights. And, in short, that is why I stopped wearing the star. “

Another emotional experience that over time has made rational is the denial of anti-Semitic sentiment in Europe, especially among Hungarians and Germans. “It is difficult to understand the implications of racial discrimination towards a group that is perceived as a memory. Other forms of racism, against Muslims, for example, are concrete, they are happening. I understand that they take priority. The Jewish community in Europe is so small that anti-Semitism is something abstract, theoretical. ” Paradoxically, all of this had a lot to do with Deborah moving to Berlin, the heart of the Holocaust: in the German capital, Jews do not feel forgotten. “And I am not the only one – she affirms -. Jews come to Berlin from all over the world, who feel oppressed in their places of origin and who seek there their own redefinition of Jewish identity. Berlin has always offered people that freedom of conventions “. And there, Deborah has found the identity she was looking for. “And it is probably an identity that only I fit in,” he admits. “But the great trap of identity is that it consists, to a large extent, in external attribution: it is other people who tell us what we are. Now, I just need my self-recognition. That makes me feel empowered. But of course, it has been a process. “

A process in which he has made an effort to understand other types of Jews (Sephardic, Ashkenazi, young people raised in Israel, secular Jews …) and even the descendants of his grandparents’ torturers. Her romantic relationship with Markus, a German of Nazi descent, is perhaps the most contentious passage in her book. “It is a disturbing chapter and it elicited complicated feelings for many readers. It was disturbing for me too, but I felt compelled to do so. Call it exposure therapy, or facing your fears to free yourself from them; I was trying to confront the prejudices that my community had for me. Because if I cannot understand other people as individuals, separating them from the community from which they come, then neither can I ask that they understand me as an individual. It was an effort to free myself from certain collective ideas. “

Sex, even when it did not include that element of cultural transgression, was another difficult journey for Feldman, raised in complete ignorance of her sexuality and married at 17 in an arranged marriage characterized by painful intimate relationships. “For 10 years, progress was very slow. But I was lucky to meet very kind men. I gave myself time, I did not set impossible expectations and I ended up reaching a place where I can let myself go, trust, be intimate. And that’s a lot. , no doubt. It took me a lot of work to get there. But it was a nice job, “he laughs. “And, after all, I don’t think it’s that different from the experience of other women either. I think that the idea that society gives us about female sexuality is wrong, in general. And that each woman has to decide how to resolve it. On her own. The ultimate freedom as a woman is to reject any imposed ideas about sexuality and express your true inner sexuality. I think this is a struggle that we are all in. “

Even so, it recognizes that the exclusion of pleasure as something sinful is a specific problem of religious communities. “In Yiddish,” epicurean “and” heretical “are the same word. In my community there was a fear of individual pleasure, of enjoying life too much, which had a lot to do with the survivor syndrome they suffered after World War II. My grandparents believed that if they were too happy, Satan would come and take everything away from us again; if they suffered, God would not send them more suffering. It was not just something religious, but an idea exaggerated by trauma, which turned any individual satisfaction into something threatening. “

Her ex-husband, Eli, also abandoned Hasidic life, remarried, and had two more children. Do you think his “defection” was easier than hers? Feldman is cautious. “I don’t know everything about her experience and I’m not the right person to judge her. I know that she had her own difficulties, especially with her family, and as I know her, I know that she suffered. But there were probably things that were easier for her. She was not a father. single, he didn’t have to worry about money… Yes, in practical terms – not emotionally – it’s easier for men. There are more men than women among those who leave the communities. ” A few years ago, Eli wrote him a letter thanking him for what he had done for their son and for him. They have an affable relationship and, in fact, it was he who suggested that she move to Berlin with her son, knowing that it was what she wanted. Were you the only one from your old community who contacted her after leaving her? “Oh no,” he says passionately. “I received many messages. Relatives who insulted me, threatened me, asked me to commit suicide, told me that they had my grave prepared and that they were willing to dance on it. And also emails from some people. that they wanted to leave the community or that they had already done so. But there was much more hatred than support. Not anymore. Since I moved to Berlin, I have ceased to exist for them. ” Also for her grandmother, so important to her that she traced her entire biography across Europe? At this question, Feldman’s anger turns to sadness. “When I left the community, she suffered from senile dementia. She no longer recognized me. It was very sad, but also a relief.”

His grandmother was the only mother figure from his childhood. Her mother had left the community when she was little, fleeing from an alcoholic and mentally ill husband. But when Deborah contacted her mother, after leaving the satmar, she did not find the welcome she expected. He doesn’t seem to hold a grudge against him. “I know what he had to go through, and it was much worse than what I went through,” he says. But didn’t he feel entitled to ask her for help, to expect some maternal protection from her? “I did not think in those terms. In a world where women are so powerless, they also do not feel entitled to demand anything from each other. I do not judge my mother, nor do I demand anything from her. But at the same time, I do not owe her anything either. We have a difficult and superficial relationship. But there have been so many external forces that have caused this that… Well, there are worse things in life. ” The yin of this yang is his own son, Yitzi, the main reason why he abandoned the Hasidics and managed to keep by their side through thick and thin. How much does he know about…? “He knows everything,” he interrupts. “He asked all the questions in the world, I answered them and went on to something else. He knows where his father and I come from and supports me a lot, but he does not identify with me. That makes me very happy, because each Every time he made a decision, I was terrified to think how it would affect him. “

When he wrote Unorthodox, Feldman did not write a happy ending. He didn’t know if happiness was going to happen. Now living in Berlin for seven years, her son is a healthy teenager and is finishing his first novel in German (a language he learned from the Yiddish of his childhood). Are you happy at last? Feldman does not hesitate. “Yes, I feel happy. I feel very happy, all the time. I feel happy when I wake up in the morning, I am glad to be alive, so much that sometimes I feel overwhelmed.” He closes his eyes, smiles. happy”.

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