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In 2009, at the age of twenty-three, Deborah Feldman packed up her young son and their few possessions and walked away from her insular Hasidic roots. She was determined to forge a better life for herself, away from the rampant oppression, abuse, and isolation of her Satmar upbringing in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Out of her experience came the incendiary, bestselling memoir Unorthodox, and now, just a few years later, Feldman has embarked on a triumphant journey of self-discovery—a journey in which she begins life anew as a single mother, an independent woman, and a religious refugee.
Taking her cues from favorite childhood books read in secret and the modern classics only recently introduced to her, Feldman explores the United States, from San Francisco to Chicago, New Orleans, and the Southwest. In her travels, and at home, Feldman redefines her sense of identity—no longer Orthodox, she comes to terms with her Jewishness by discovering a world of like-minded outcasts and misfits committed to self-acceptance and healing. Inwardly, Feldman has navigated remarkable experiences: raising her son in the “real” world, finding solace and solitude in a writing career, and searching for love. Culminating in an unforgettable trip across Europe to retrace her grandmother’s life during the Holocaust, Exodus is a deeply moving exploration of the mysterious bonds that tie us to family and religion, the bonds we must sometimes break to find our true selves. Feldman proves herself again to be a captivating storyteller, and her singular life has been an inspiration to countless others and for readers everywhere.
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Deborah Feldman was raised in the Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Her first memoir, Unorthodox, was a New York Times bestseller. She is twenty-seven years old and lives in New England with her son, where she is currently working on her next book.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2014 by Deborah Feldman
There she is, just across the street, sulking on the stoop. Seven years old, skin pale almost to the point of translucence, lips pursed into a sullen pout. She stares gloomily at the silver Mary Janes on her feet, the tips of which catch the last rays of sunlight quickly fading behind the three-story brownstone.
She has been scrubbed and primped in preparation for Passover, soon to arrive. Her hair hurts where it’s been pulled too tight into a bun at the top of her head. She feels each strand stretching from its inflamed follicle, especially at the nape of her neck, where an early-spring breeze raises goose bumps on the exposed skin. Her hands are folded into the lap of her brand-new purple dress, with peonies and violets splashed wildly on the fabric, smocking at the chest, and a sash tied around the waist. There are new white tights stretched over her thin legs.
This little side street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, usually bustling with black-clad men carrying prayer books, is momentarily silent and empty, its residents indoors making preparations for the evening. The little girl has managed to sneak away in the rush, to sit alone across from the young pear tree the neighbors planted a few years ago after carving out a square of beige dirt in the stretch of lifeless asphalt. Now it f lowers gently, bulbous white blossoms dangling precariously from its boughs.
I cross the street toward her. No cars come. The silence is magnificent, enormous. She doesn’t seem to notice me approaching, nor does she look up when I sit down next to her on the stoop. I look at her face and know instantly, with the pain of a punch to the gut, exactly how long it’s been since there was a smile on it.
I put my arm around her shoulder, ever so gently, as if she might break from the weight, and I whisper into her ear, “Everything is going to be fine.”
She turns and looks at me for the first time, her face a mask of distrust.
“It’s going to be just fine. I promise.”
Snap. The hypnotherapist wakes me by clicking her fingers together in a classic stage move.
“You did good,” she says. “Go home and try to have sex tonight. Let me know what happens. I have a feeling we’ve fixed the problem. Not completely, but enough for now.”
I get out of the chair, feeling dizzy and disoriented. The little girl in the purple dress recedes rapidly from my memory, even as I grasp for her in my wakeful state. What did we talk about? I can’t remember. Did she tell us anything? Does the doctor know something about my past now, something that I don’t?
Never mind. The important thing is, did it really work?
It’s been a year since my husband and I crossed the threshold into our new home and our new life, only to discover that our most important purpose as a couple could not be fulfilled: procreation. Repeated attempts and numerous medical opinions have only served to confuse us further; it’s as if a wall has been erected inside me. Could this be the miracle cure I’ve been waiting for? Will I really be able to go home tonight and finally consummate my marriage?
I often wonder why I went back to that day, when the hypnotherapist instructed me to find some version of my childhood self to reassure. It’s always the child lurking within us that rebels, that sulks, that angrily demands our attention. On that day, however, I was quiet and internal. Everyone around me was caught up in their work, and I was allowed to move about, feeling temporarily forgotten. It was not a moment of great injury.
But someone had photographed me earlier. I remember posing in the garden, being coaxed and prodded into a portrait of pleasantness. I saw the photo some years later, and in it I was cringing as if afraid. My brow was furrowed and my shoulders were raised in a guarded posture. It seemed as if there was a person on the other side of the camera making a threat.
The hypnotherapist had asked me to go back as far as I could, and that’s where I went, to the moment the f lash went off and I was temporarily blinded, unable to see the person behind the camera, unable to recall that person later. But I could not approach her there, in the garden, while she was being watched, so I waited for that quiet, private moment that I knew would follow, so that I could pass on the information as instructed.
The exercise was supposed to heal the wound that had been inflicted so long ago, the one that had eaten so deep into my subconscious that it had managed to seep into my muscles themselves, sealing them shut. Which particular injury had caused the damage I did not know, but the therapist had assured me that all I needed to do was find my wounded self and console her, and the rest would take care of itself.
All these years later, even though I’ve left my marriage and my community and am raising my own child far away from Brooklyn, I still go back to that little girl. I have so much more to share with her now.
I ask her, “Did you ever think this is where we’d be?”
I’d always dreamed of living by the water. I had glimpsed the ocean only a few times during my urban, closeted childhood in the Satmar community in Williamsburg. My days were spent on asphalt, which would swell in the heat of summer and give off an acrid odor. Trucks would rattle over potholes patched with metal plates, their exhaust poisoning the air. The serenity of the ocean seemed remote, when in fact the sea split into brooding gray serpents that snaked around us from all sides.
I often painted elaborate fairy-tale endings for myself in my mind, inserting myself into grand, ramshackle beach houses, secluded island retreats, houses on stilts with rivers f lowing beneath them. Not once during my daydreams did I place my future self in the tenement apartment I was most likely to end up in. The memory of those delightful visions returned to me in the summer of 2012, as I searched for the first place that would truly be my home and suddenly realized that those dreams weren’t so unrealistic anymore.
Yet proximity to water wasn’t on the short list of requirements I presented to my broker, who specialized in the unique corner of rural New England I was scouting, an area where three states converged, yet which seemed to boast very little of each of them in terms of identity. The area was partly occupied by urbanites who kept a place in the country and embraced by the parents who had moved there for the private schools. After a tumultuous three-year period in Manhattan, during which I had struggled to get my divorce and establish a custody agreement, this seemed like a place to do that which needed doing, the raising of a child, the healing of one’s wounds.
The broker, John, picked me up in his old converted Rover; the windows and roof had been removed, and only the supports, wrapped in padded leather fabric, remained. I climbed up into the passenger seat and gripped the roof frame while we jostled along country roads. A field of sunflowers appeared on the right as we drove up a steep hill, only to gaze down an even greater drop on the other side, clear to a river and the verdant mountains beyond. We turned a corner and passed a meadow upon which strange-looking cows were grazing. They had shaggy straight hair, which spilled over their eyes in tufts, and looked almost like sheep in need of a shearing.
“Those are Scottish Highlanders,” John informed me. “They’re the hardiest of all cows; they can plow any field. No territory is too harsh for them. Great for beginners,” he joked. “You should try raising some up here.”
This then, was the place for me, I thought, a place where the hardiest of species could thrive on the rockiest of foundations, a place for beginners.
I looked at a few houses; each had some f law or another. Then we drove down a dead-end street near town, to the very last driveway, which swung up and around a grove of evergreens, and there it was: a modestly sized contemporary house on a hill overlooking a large lake. It was one of those moments in life when you just know. I went through the motions; the broker insisted it wasn’t a sure thing, but I knew it was.
The most powerful thing about living on the water, I would soon learn, is that one is forced into a perpetual relationship with a mirror—a reflective surface in some way quite literal and in many other ways deeply spiritual. Contemplating water somehow has the effect of forcing one to contemplate oneself. A good thing, if one’s self needs fixing.
We moved in over the summer. It was a glorious time. Isaac, then six years old, swam in the lake every day. We lay on the dock and peered over the edge to see the sunfish and perch sheltering beneath. He collected snail shells, he tried to skip rocks but rarely succeeded, he spied on rabbits making short work of leafy plants. Every evening the sun would set in magnificent colors over the water, the lake would seem stiller somehow, and the world would get very quiet. I watched, pretzel-legged on the grass, as the last of the pink glow faded, and the crickets assumed their nightly routine. The madness of Manhattan seemed very far away.
This sense of quiet in my life was very new and, as yet, out of character. My friend Heather used to remark, back when we attended Sarah Lawrence together, that I drove like a bat out of hell. It wasn’t that my aggressive maneuvering around New York traffic bothered her; it was just her way of describing, rather endearingly, my general approach to life after a reckless escape from an arranged marriage in a sheltered community. I was constantly shooting off in every direction, arriving at every destination as if I had a trail of cartoon dust clouds behind me.
I thought a lot about that expression, “bat out of hell,” in the early days after making the big move to the country. Growing up we had a similar saying in Yiddish that essentially translates to “a cow out of the stall.” It was used to describe a Hasidic Jew who had left the community, likening the person’s behavior to that of a cow suddenly let loose after a lifetime of imprisonment. It was believed that such cows were most likely to charge madcap down a hill to their deaths. Hasidic rebels reportedly indulged in wild, drug-abusing lifestyles that inevitably ended in ruin, similar to the cow’s doomed trajectory. Freedom posed an especial danger, the adage emphasized, to those who had never previously experienced it.
This saying, scornfully evoked when the conversation turned to the subject of the few known rebels in our society, irritated me greatly as a child. Didn’t the phrase do more to point out the failings of life in a stall than the dangers of freedom? Wasn’t it clear that the cow would have been better off grazing freely in the first place?
Never mind. If I were a cow out of a stall, then I would be a Scottish Highlander, capable of making it even in the most dangerous terrain, I told myself. There would be no fatal fall for me, no catapulting off a cliff.
I will admit that people like me do go a little overboard immediately after leaving. We do it for many reasons. For one, we don’t know any better. It’s like we never learned how to move around at all, having been stuck in one place for so long that we can’t get our sea legs. We can’t quite master a steady gait. Another reason: You know after World War II, when the concentration camps were liberated, how some people gorged on food and died from shock? Deprivation can make you crazy, desperate. I walked around with that post-deprivation feeling for a long time, gorging inappropriately on every experience with the underlying fear that it would be snatched from me before I could get my fill. But the truth is, even without those reasons, we still run from our stalls as fast as we can, just because we can. Because the feeling of being free is so incredible, so intoxicating, we don’t want to meander our way through it. We want to race down that mountain, wind whipping past our ears, whooping loudly in triumph.
Leaving, to me, felt like climbing a tremendous hill, one of those steep inclines that becomes almost treacherous in that the more momentum you build while racing down it, the more difficult it becomes to stop safely. If you’ve ever biked up a hill only to zip freakishly fast down the other side of it, which I did for the first time the summer my son and I moved to the country, you’ll understand what I mean. The wonderful thing about it is the natural leveling of the ground that occurs at the bottom. And eventually, we all do hit bottom, and not in the way of the cliché, which I’ve always disliked. (The bottom is a good thing. Who decided otherwise?)
When you hit bottom, and your bicycle tires spin more slowly, or your awkward, close-together steps become longer and looser, you’ve hit your stride. You’ve found your gait. And everything is A-OK. You get a silly smile on your face at the memory of how you felt f lying down the hill, and you think, man, I am awesome for doing that.
Let me be clear: my life, right now, is amazing. I have everything I ever dreamed of, and I never forget just how lucky I am to have achieved it. But my feelings have been failing to catch on to the changes in my life; in some ways my brain is still stuck in the past. When I finally went to a psychiatrist to receive a formal diagnosis on the list of mental illnesses I was so sure I suffered from, the verdict of post-traumatic stress disorder seemed almost anticlimactic.
It might not even be that, the psychiatrist said, recommending talk therapy and nothing else. It could just be an adjustment disorder. Those things go away in six months, he said.
And yet, I was having bad dreams every night, waking up each morning enveloped by feelings of dread, and I panicked secretly when in groups or crowds. None of this was consistent with the calm and fulfilling existence I had begun living.
How to describe this feeling? A form of displacement, like being unable to see yourself in a photograph of a scene you remember being part of, or looking at the spot on the map where you know you live but being unable to find the street. Somehow you’ve been erased, as if it were all a dream. I had begun, since leaving, to see life as an enormous grid, a cross-section of human connections. Every man and woman appeared as a plotted point on an intricate map, lines drawn between them and close family members, longer lines waiting to rush through open tunnels on the grid to anchor friends, neighbors, lovers, even acquaintances. Wherever I looked, I saw the invisible threads that connected people; every person seemed to have their grid firmly and inextricably in place. And I thought of that saying “No man is an island” and wondered how long I’d survive without a grid of my own, and if it was even possible to rebuild one from scratch.
Maybe my residual angst is actually predicated on a real experience, not just leftover trauma. Is it the experience of being dislodged from the grid? Funny, since I can’t ever remember having been securely fixed on it, and I have a niggling fear that my birth was a mistake, like a computer glit...
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