The wildly popular Netflix series “Unorthodox,” based on Deborah Feldman’s best-selling 2009 memoir of the same name, is only part of Feldman’s story. Yes, she was born into a repressive Brooklyn Hasidic community and had a lousy arranged marriage that included severe sexual difficulties, but she did not sneak out of the house, run away pregnant to Europe and have a “Glee”-like experience at a music school in Berlin. In fact, she moved to the Orthodox enclave in Monsey, N.Y., with her husband, had a baby with him, matriculated at Sarah Lawrence College, where she began writing, found an agent and began planning to get out of marriage with the book deal as her lifeline. (A decade later, she was involved with, and enthusiastic about, the Netflix series.)
In a new book, “Exodus, Revisited,” Feldman, now a 35-year-old divorcée who resides in Berlin, offers a thorough account of what’s happened since she left her community and her marriage. Feldman writes of her early financial and emotional struggles as a single mother in Manhattan and then in a rural area outside the city, feeling with increasing urgency the magnetism of Europe. Her journey, both physical and spiritual, is rooted in her lifelong drive to understand the meaning of her Jewish identity.
“Exodus, Revisited” is in many ways intriguing and intellectually satisfying, but for fans of the Netflix series and for readers who prefer an exciting, plot-driven story presented in simple, straightforward prose, it may disappoint. Her biggest fans, on the other hand, the ones who read everything she writes, may be surprised to realize they have seen quite a bit of this story before.
After the success of “Unorthodox” but still long before the TV show, she was encouraged to produce a sequel. “Sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll was the phrase mentioned,” she tells us in her new book, “as if my becoming an American was predicated on embracing the hedonism my family and community had deemed a grave sin. I longed more than anything to be allowed to keep writing, to have a career as a writer, so although I was filled with anxiety, I was determined to try my best to follow this assignment.”
She duly wrote about road trips to the South and West Coast, visits to hypnotists and shamans, and romances in New Orleans, Europe and elsewhere. In a darkly titillating moment, she makes out with a German at the foot of New York’s Williamsburg Bridge. “Let’s pretend it’s 1939. You’re a Nazi, and I’m a Jewish girl you found on the street.” She also describes her travels in Europe to trace the roots of her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor.
Reviews of Feldman’s 2014 memoir, “Exodus,” were mixed, one praising her “more mature and increasingly eloquent writing style,” others complaining about the confusing, non-chronological presentation. In “Exodus, Revisited,” Feldman has replaced about half the book with new material. Telling the story from a vantage point of six years later, she sees a different trajectory, one in which she gave up on becoming an American and found an identity and a home in Europe.
She has also embraced a much more intellectual and philosophical approach to thinking about her life, reflected in a dramatically different prose style. For example, Feldman now formulates her struggle in terms like this: “I had been so hungry for the form of autonomy that would allow me to construct my own narrative that I had catapulted myself beyond any framework that could contain my story. In fact I had landed in a kind of narrative vacuum.” She is heavily influenced by “the literature of long-dead authors” she now favors — Jean Améry, Gregor von Rezzori, Tadeusz Borowski — preferring them to “contemporary titles that I often had trouble telling apart, as they all seemed to echo one another in style and approach.”
The emotional center of “Exodus, Revisited” is her 2014 move to Berlin, a city she fell head over heels in love with, the first place she ever missed when she left it, the first place she ever felt at home. She even becomes a German citizen. If that sounds surprising, given her passionate Jewish identity and family history with the Holocaust, know that the whole purpose of this book is to explore and explain it.
In Berlin, she found a new partner, Jan, who is also a parent. “Everything was going wonderfully,” she tells us, “to the point where I had begun to forget about all my prior prejudices and disappointments, and I began to believe that from now on my life here would always be this idyllic.” But one Saturday morning, they visited a popular water park just north of the German capital, in Oranienburg. There, to her horror, she saw a man with a tattoo of the entry gate at Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in occupied Poland. Though outraged, she didn’t speak up. Someone else did, though, and the incident became an international cause celebre.
This experience, Feldman writes, “shattered the illusion that I had begun living under, namely, that Germany was a country in which the majority of people condemn right-wing extremism and have wrestled with their past and learned from it.” Though the tattooed man, a far-right local politician, ended up in jail (Germany has strict laws against the promotion of Nazi ideology), in Feldman’s mind, the issue was far from settled.
Across her three memoirs, Feldman is always thinking about her Jewish identity. How can a person who senses herself an outsider find home? How does one fulfill an obligation to one’s forebears and honor generations of trauma? Or feel comfortable with so many blond-haired people and antisemites in the world? (Feldman has a fraught relationship with blond hair. While it makes her sharply conscious of her own appearance, she also confesses, “When I met my husband for the first time at the age of seventeen, I focused mostly on his golden hair and what that would mean for my genetic legacy.” And when her son was born blond, she thanked God, because “he’ll pass for non-Jewish.”)
Feldman may have left the Orthodox community, but for her, Jewishness is indelible. As she explains to an artist friend in the United States, she “could not reinvent” herself “the way he had, for even if I changed the way I spoke or the way I dressed, I did not have the basic genetic traits required to project the kind of sophisticated waspy eccentricity that he did. I would always be seen as a Jew trying to camouflage myself.”
Certainly, Feldman is not trying to camouflage herself. She is trying to understand, with all the tools at her disposal, who she really is. While “Exodus, Revisited” is nowhere near as crowd-friendly a cultural product as the Netflix series, it raises hard questions that are important to many people.
Marion Winik, a professor at the University of Baltimore, is the author of numerous books, including “First Comes Love,” “The Lunch-Box Chronicles” and most recently, “The Big Book of the Dead.”
By Deborah Feldman
Plume. 368 pp. Paperback, $18
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