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17.04.2020 Europe

'Unorthodox': Escape from New York to a new life in Berlin

By Emmanuelle Chaze - RFI
© ALexa Vachon
LISTEN APR 17, 2020
© ALexa Vachon

At a time when billions are confined to their homes because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Netflix has launched another story of seclusion – and escape. Based on the autobiography of Deborah Feldman, "Unorthodox" tells the tale of a young Hassidic jewish woman in New York, who strives for freedom and manages to break away from the society into which she was born.

“Unorthodox”, available since the end of March on Netflix, is a story loosely based on the autobiography written by Deborah Feldman.  More than a decade ago, Feldman left the Satmar community and settled in Berlin where she now lives with her teenage son.

The success of her autobiographical series and a renewed interest in her background have allowed Feldman to follow the path she has carved for herself - that of a critically acclaimed writer.

At the height of the Covid-19 lockdown, she spoke to RFI's Emmanuelle Chaze about her new life in the German capital.

Deborah Feldman, you grew up in a secluded community – throughout your first book you talk about that feeling of being limited in your movement. How does it feel to be in confinement now?

It's not that terrible, to be honest. I'm still free to construct my everyday life the way I see fit, which was something I wasn't able to do in the community, so I can still decide which books I read, which films I watch, and where I want to go for a walk, and these freedoms are still freedoms I cherish, even after all this time. On the other hand I also think that writers are part of a subgroup of people that are probably suffering the least right now, because their lives haven't changed very much.

We're still working from home like we always have, we're still enjoying our peace and quiet, so I would hate to complain about my situation because I do think that I have it better than most. But of course I'm noticing myself reaching for all the resources that I never thought I would have to draw on.

Particularly in dealing with isolation, which is something that is familiar to me and by that I don't just mean physical isolation, but also emotional, psychological, which is something I'm familiar with from my childhood, but also from the period of time shortly after I left the community and I had very few connexions in the outside world, and simply no one to turn to or to talk to.

I can still talk to people obviously digitally, but the resources I'm speaking of, is this idea that you can create your own inner world, that feels very rich and very full, and I've learned to do this from a young age and I find myself relying more on this inner world right now to feel complete.

Coming from New York, how do you feel about that?

I'm really glad to be away from New York. I grew up with a lot of stories about the Apocalypse. I grew up with the Old Testament which has many apocalyptic tales. I just think the whole time how lucky I am that I got away, how lucky I am to live in a city like Berlin, which is dealing with the pandemic remarkably well I would say.

Certainly I feel that we are more fortunate here than in Austria, Spain, Italy and France. And there are many reasons, I have very many theories, but the bottom line is that I'm probably better off than most, not just because of being a writer and being used to isolation, but also because I happened to be in a city and a country which is not as deeply incapacitated.

I feel very fortunate, I don't miss New York at all, I feel really sorry for the people I know who are stuck in New York, but I have to be honest, most people I know are fortunate enough that they left the city in time to go to their second homes or third homes, and the people who are really suffering are the ones that suffer in New York all the time, because New York is a city full of suffering, that is how I always experienced it.

In trying times, that's when you notice which place you can really call home. You wrote about your experience as an immigrant arriving in Berlin. Does it feel like home now?

I definitely feel very much at home in Berlin and I think you're right,  moments like this show us where we feel at home. Although I feel like I've always known that I feel at home here, but certainly there's no other place I'd rather be the next year or two, for as long as this crisis lasts, I'm really also very touched by the solidarity of people I see around me and by the way people are figuring out methods to cope.

I think in general our sense of home is being threatened all over the world because home is something we connect with the feeling of safety and continuity and this is interrupted for everyone. We have to redefine the concept of home now as a planet, and I think that is important and will lead to important discussions and reflections and I hope that at the very end of all of this we will have come away from the experience having learned valuable things about how to live in the future. I can only hope, I'm not very optimistic, but I hope so!

I notice people around me already changing their attitudes and perspectives, adjusting their expectations, coming to grips with a future in which travel for example will no longer be possible, but figuring out other ways to spend time together and enjoy life, and this inspires me and makes me feel very optimistic that some good things are coming out of that situation.

This is also a time when you reconnect with your family. Have they, or have you reached out?

No. My community is dealing with the coronavirus in a very unique way because it believes above all else that rituals are the only way to counteract challenges, and rituals only have meaning if they are enacted as a community. They don't have a meaning if enacted individually. In America and Israel, we're having massive problems with the virus spreading like wildfire in this community because they just simply can't apply the measures that we apply in their lives without completely sacrificing their sense of identity, so it's really a crisis and I think they approach it just completely differently and it is not a time where they might want to connect with the world outside of their own, but rather the opposite, to try to maintain their own way of life, even more against the pressures coming from outside.

If anything, I have become more concerned about my former community as a result of this crisis because I'm connected to a lot of other people who have left and we share news with each other and it is shocking to me what is happening there.

You forged your own path. Had you planned to be considered as a role model by some, had you anticipated that it would open doors for other people, be it with the book or the series?

It's more symbiotic than that. I think that I was part of a zeitgeist, because at the time that I left, that I wrote my book, there were about 40 to 50 people who had done the same, and today there are thousands. I think the last decade has really broken down a lot of barriers and that I am part of that moment of barriers falling.

I like to think that I'm just one of many doing the work and paving the way to follow, but I certainly wouldn't think that one person can change the world. Of course, I'm really happy to be part of that moment, I feel very connected to people who have done the same, in different contexts.

Talking about what we see in the series…Esty, the fictionalised version of you in “Unorthodox”, is having this terrible first time when it comes to physical intimacy. How does one recover from that and how does one manage to let other people in again after such an abusive experience?

It's hard for me to categorise it as abuse because it is so systemic. There is no one person that you can kind of lay the blame at their feet because as you watch the series everyone is stuck in a system they don't quite understand. They're simply performing the roles they've been given. That includes the husband, his mother ... everyone sort of just playing along without understanding that together you're forming something quite destructive.

On the other hand, I would say, without wanting to sound negative, that you probably never recover. But in general, it is true for all of us that no human being truly fully recovers from the trauma in the sense that we become the people we were before. What you do is that you discover alternative coping mechanisms to achieving intimacy for example. It's true, it's difficult to let people in after an experience like that.

You find creative ways around it and people who have the ability to be more understanding and more patient than most, and are able to help you. In that way I've been very lucky in my relationships. Maybe I will never be a person who has casual relationships but I don't think that's so terrible or sad, because I still think that you can be very happy without having lots of casual relationships.

There's a lot to be said in that regard as you've moved to Berlin which is a very liberal city…

Luckily in the sense that Berlin has a non-conventional attitude to relationships I feel emotionally very secure here, because there are no conventional pressures. People don't expect you to be part of a nuclear family unit. In that sense my relationships feel very free and very positive, and that's probably the most important part of my freedom today, it is this emotional freedom, to live beyond conventional boundaries.

Books are very much present in your story, they seem to have made you who you are. What's the latest book you've read that really had an impact on you?

I'm reading a book right now, Story of a Life by Aharon Appelfeld, I find this very interesting because he was a child Holocaust survivor who went on to become a very popular Israeli writer and he never wrote about his own experiences. He wrote all these amazing novels but this is his autobiography and what is stunning is that Applefeld himself has very few memories because trauma has a way of whipping up your memories, and what he is trying to do is construct the story of a life he doesn't remember, by snatching very brief moments of memory that come back to him and the story in itself is so incomplete, it feels like a puzzle with very many missing pieces.

But just reading a book like that, where you understand that the story is in that which can't be remembered and that which can't be told, I find it very poetic and very helpful at this moment to really get a perspective on what is human hardship and how we can focus on the blessings we have in this situation. I'm drawn on books specifically that would relate to how I'm experiencing isolation.

I hear that you have switched languages in your literary career and are now writing in German, how did that happen?

It's because I grew up speaking Yiddish as my mother tongue, and English was always a foreign language for me, and when I discovered German, I realised it was like having your mother tongue, but with an extended vocabulary.

When I fell into the language I realised I was more comfortable writing in it than in English.

I've been working on a novel for the past few years. Corona kind of put in a little kink in things but I would like to ease back into it in the coming weeks. I'm really glad to be moving into the realm of fiction because it does get exhausting to be identified with a life story for so long, especially one that you lived more than a decade ago.

At some point I would like to also have a life past that story, and moving into fiction for me is a way to explore themes in my writing that don't necessarily directly relate to my own life, but are certainly part of my realm of interest.

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