Sequel memoir is disappointingly immature

“Exodus: A Memoir” by Deborah Feldman; Blue Rider Press, 304 pages, $26.95

By Elaine K. Alexander, Special to the Light

“Exodus: A Memoir” is the second autobiographical account by Deborah Feldman about her self-chosen exile from an ultra-Orthodox community in the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. 

In her first book, “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” Feldman told of being separated from her mother and father and raised by her grandparents, among the Satmar Hasidim.

At age 17, Feldman had an arranged marriage. A tortuous “honeymoon” period ensued on account of both partners’ sexual naïveté and her medical issues (more about that later). But the young couple eventually were able to consummate their marriage and, at 19, Feldman gave birth to Isaac. Isaac is 6 and 7 within the narrative of the book, and Feldman is 26 and 27.

Members of the Satmar community have quarreled hotly with Feldman over details of her childhood. But sliced, diced or minced, Feldman’s general point seems inarguable: The Satmar community is insular and repressive relative to the rest of the world just over the Brooklyn Bridge.

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However, remarks by Frimet Goldberger in the Jewish Daily Forward, who had a friendship with Feldman through their respective husbands, suggest that when Feldman separated from the Satmars, her life was not as extreme as she portrayed it. 

From Goldberger’s perspective: In September 2009, Feldman suddenly took her young son and left when Feldman was openly and freely attending Sarah Lawrence College and already living with her husband, Eli, a block from the Goldbergers in Airmont, N.Y., a third-generation enclave whose residents tend to explore a post-Orthodox lifestyle.

During a good part of the memoir, the author is traveling here and abroad. Feldman makes a roots trip to Sweden and Hungary where, remarkably, the two gravestones that have not been carried off from the Jewish cemetery in her grandmother’s hometown are those of her great- and great-great-grandmother, and where (Feldman cannot fail to report) her intelligence and vivacity captivates one of her hosts.

Feldman passes through Austria, where a group of merrymakers in lederhosen causes her to think: Sure, have fun – now that the Jews are gone!

In Germany, she gets a bum steer from a train conductor and suddenly feels herself to be “not in a train station, but in Auschwitz,” having just “witnessed unspeakable cruelty.” (This is one of a couple of offensive comparisons between herself and victims of the Shoah.)

In Cordoba’s “Jewish” quarter, Feldman becomes irate about the Jews having been expelled 500 years ago. In protest, she buys a necklace with a Magen David and “boldly” wears the Jewish star in the street. Although this should have been unnecessary, if, as Feldman fears in Munich: By her nose alone, people know she is Jewish.

During her travels, the author is drawn to a series of men who come in an “exotic package.” Conor seemed like good “fling material,” and she never meant to fall in love with him.

Feldman provides some inauthentic, large-scale conclusions about her capacity for relationship. But she does not explain how, with a whole series of partners, she can be having good and even “soooo-good” sex despite the “mutinous and irascible [anatomy]” that caused her so much trouble at the beginning of her marriage.

Presumably, the memoir is about Feldman’s search for her Jewish identity. And the author does occasionally and suddenly fix on the nature of her Jewishness – “Europe is my Zion … I am a global Jew” – although she hasn’t earned these pronouncements. Rather, she pulls them like a rabbit out of a shtreimel (the donut-shaped, fur hat worn by Satmar Hasidim).

Feldman leaves out critical things, such as her and her son’s relationship with his Satmar family. Also disconcertingly absent is an awareness of her son’s – or anyone’s – inner life.

Meanwhile, it is a sign of Feldman’s general immaturity that she gives juvenile attention to her yellow galoshes, red-painted toenails, “flowing cashmere wrap,” etc. etc. She does not mention new barrettes and, at least, in the Kindle version, the i’s are not dotted with little hearts.