The PEN Pod: Creating Inner Worlds with Deborah Feldman
Today on The PEN Pod, we are joined by bestselling author Deborah Feldman. Feldman’s autobiography, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, published in 2012, documents her escape from an ultra religious Jewish community in Brooklyn. Now her story is the basis for a Netflix series by the same name. We spoke with Deborah about what it’s like to change the boundaries of the mainstream cultural conversation, the importance of understanding rules and rituals as being up for reinterpretation, and how we can cultivate rich inner lives during times of isolation. Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with Deborah is up until the 13:45 mark).
For folks who don’t know a lot about the Hasidic community, haven’t watched the show, or read your book, can you explain a little bit about what the community is and the role of women in it especially?
This community was founded after World War II by a rabbi from a town on the border between Hungary and Romania—a rabbi who previously had already been rooted pretty deeply in the Hasidic movement, which is a sort of radical, mystical Jewish movement that started in Eastern Europe in the 18th century. But this rabbi, who had already been radicalizing before the war, came to New York shortly after having survived via Kastner’s transport. And he gathered a bunch of Holocaust survivors around him at that time with this message of, “The Holocaust was a punishment, and I had warned about this punishment that was coming because it was God’s last warning for us to avoid the apocalypse, or the end of the world.” He felt that Jews were being punished for assimilating and for becoming Zionists, for basically thinking they could end their own exile, instead of waiting patiently to deserve the messiah.
And so this community was founded by survivors, but people often mistake it for something old world and romantic, because the costumes are very similar to that, which all ultra-Orthodox Jews wore before the war. But the ideology in this community is actually very modern and very different, and it is also an ideology that develops in response to modernity, in tandem to it. So as the world has gotten more modern and more progressive since World War II, especially when you have the civil rights movement and feminism, the community has responded toward that modernity by becoming more extreme and more closed off from the world.
That also means, though, that the rules aren’t necessarily stable. The community is founded on this idea that all Jewish traditions and rituals have to be reinterpreted in a much more extreme way, in order to appease the God that was angry enough to cause the Holocaust. But also these rituals are constantly being reinterpreted. I remember, when I was a child, discovering a photo in my grandmother’s things of my aunts when they were children, and asking her how it was possible that their skirts were so short, because they were a few inches above the knee. And I knew in my community that there was no chance of a woman wearing a skirt shorter than 10 inches below the knee. So I remember asking her, “How could this be possible?” And she looked at the photo briefly, and she waved it off and said, “Oh, you know, back then it was less strict.” That was the first moment in my childhood where I realized, okay, the rules aren’t stable, they’re constantly changing, and I write in the beginning of my book that when I entered the eighth grade in my school, there was this new rule introduced, that women could no longer wear knit fabrics directly on their body. They would have to wear a woven fabric underneath it, because knit fabric would show the form of the body.
So, throughout my lifetime, new rules were constantly being introduced, and very often these rules had to do with the modesty of women. So if bad things happen, this is often blamed on women’s dress. And right now, you have communities in Israel and America with placards hanging on the walls, basically saying coronavirus is a punishment because our women are not modest enough.
“This story has now become a part of mainstream cultural dialogue. It is completely changing the cultural conversation and expanding the horizons of the cultural conversation. It’s an amazing feeling as an author to transcend traditional boundaries of culture and language.”
What do you make of the success of the miniseries—alongside a revival of interest in your book—right now when there is, as you say, this reactionary moment to what’s going on, especially in ultra religious Jewish communities?
I obviously did not expect the series to be this successful or to receive this much feedback. Netflix is an amazing platform with 150 million viewers, and it’s worldwide simultaneously, so of course, we knew what a goldmine we had there. We really knew that, because of Netflix, this series, which normally might not reach very many viewers, would have the potential to do so. But the question of whether this potential would be fulfilled, if it’s on this platform of so much to choose from, and if people choose this show—and then not only choose it, but are totally wild and passionate about it afterwards—it’s just not something we expected. I am pretty firmly convinced that the intensity of the reaction is a result of the corona crisis. It is a result of this weird situation where we’re all kind of locked in, and we have nothing to do, and we’re just paying much more attention to media that’s streaming directly into our home. And also, I think we’re in this weird, vulnerable place where we are looking for stories that are both speaking to our circumstances, but also somehow comforting us. Somehow I wonder if Unorthodox hasn’t, by accident, managed to touch that nerve.
When my first book was published, I went through something similar, if on a much smaller scale. I remember having a really hard time selling the book. I sold the book during the last financial crisis, and I got 25 rejections when I sent my exposé out, and my agent was really down on me. She was not very positive about our chances, and out of the blue, the book did sell in a very unique way. Later, when I submitted the manuscript, I remember people from the publishing house gently warning me that I should keep my expectations low, that this kind of topic is very niche, and maybe it’ll do well in New York, but we shouldn’t expect much beyond that. And we went to publication with a pretty small print run, which is common for a debut author who is unknown. So we were not prepared for Unorthodox, as a book, to have the success it had. It did have immediate overnight success.
I think that the series has been a kind of magnified or amplified version of that experience. I feel like I’ve been through this before; there’s a bit of déjà vu. But I’m really thrilled. I’m really thrilled beyond words, for so many reasons. The big reason is understanding that this story has now become a part of mainstream cultural dialogue. It is completely changing the cultural conversation and expanding the horizons of the cultural conversation. It’s an amazing feeling as an author to transcend traditional boundaries of culture and language.
“I guess the only thing I could ever tell people, and what I’m telling people right now in my life who are having a hard time, is to use this opportunity to learn to create this rich inner self and this inner world, because later, when things slowly go back to the new normal, I think those skills will remain very valuable.”
I imagine that in this moment of lockdown, people who are in more oppressive households are feeling that isolation even more so than they usually do. What would you tell people in that kind of oppressive situation right now?
I probably can only speak to my own experience in that regard. I know a lot about what it feels like to be locked in. Obviously, I spent my whole childhood feeling locked in and having to invent excuses to leave the house, so it’s very familiar to me. Even in the early years after I left, I remember being locked in by circumstances. I remember living in poverty, and not really having the right connections or enough relationships or resources to really live a life beyond my four walls. I guess I learned from those experiences to survive by creating a very rich inner world and a very rich life within the mind, and I had forgotten about that because I’ve just done so much in the following years.
When we went into lockdown, or whatever version of lockdown we have in Berlin, I did panic a little at the beginning. It brought back some old memories. I thought I had finally left that behind me and escaped that feeling. I felt a little bit like my past was coming back to crush me. But after a few days passed, I realized—wait a second, if there’s anybody who is equipped to deal with this moment, it’s me. Like, I’m lucky I can draw on these resources. I can completely reorient my perspective and my everyday life routine to make the most of those resources, because of course, the circumstances are changed. I guess the only thing I could ever tell people, and what I’m telling people right now in my life who are having a hard time, is to use this opportunity to learn to create this rich inner self and this inner world, because later, when things slowly go back to the new normal, I think those skills will remain very valuable. And not everyone gets an opportunity to develop them. So it’s hard, and it will feel very hard at the beginning. I think we put up a lot of resistance, but if we break through that wall of resistance, it’s not as scary as we imagined it will be.
Lastly, what are you reading or watching right now that’s either giving you some distraction or context, or that’s just entertaining for you?
I’m reading this classic; it’s written by an Austrian writer named Marlen Haushofer. She wrote many really interesting works, and most of her works are autobiographical, even though they’re fiction, and her most famous work is called The Wall. It’s this absolutely incredible novel that just sucks you in without making you realize it, about this middle-aged woman who goes to visit friends of hers in some hunting lodge in the Swiss Alps and finds herself, after waking up the next morning, completely alone in this hunting lodge and discovers that an invisible wall is now all around this space. She can’t get out, and she can see that on the other side of the wall, some tremendous catastrophe has happened, and everyone is dead.
The novel is narrated as a diary, so she’s writing a diary about a year or so later after the wall has come to be. She talks about continuing to survive on her own alone in this hunting lodge, shut off from the rest of the world, which apparently has been completely destroyed in some kind of catastrophe. And the book sounds terrifying, but it’s beautiful and meditative. It’s an absolutely stunning book. It speaks so much to the meaning of life, even when everything has been taken from you. It speaks so much to the beauty that is just in being and nothing else.
It was long thought of as a feminist novel, because it was thought of as a a metaphor for the isolation of women, or women’s inability to be heard or seen by the world. Marlen herself disagreed with that interpretation, and it has been disputed today, but there is something there as well that readers might pick up on. In general, I have always seen the book as a kind of fantasy and a soothing retreat from the very hectic, daily life that used to be our reality. But I find that now, it’s working for me in a new way. It’s again teaching me about this inner world that we can create where we discover we’re actually emotionally self-sufficient, and we rely on very little in order to feel like our lives are rich and full of meaning.
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