A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (4/8/2014). Shelf Awareness provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review, and compensated me for the review they received and posted.
In her 2012 memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, Deborah Feldman chronicled her upbringing in the insular, fundamentalist Satmar sect of Orthodox Judaism and her flight from its practices with her young son. Twenty-three years old at the time she left her Brooklyn community, Feldman had a long new life ahead of her–and very little idea of what it would look like, or who she would be within it. In Exodus, she explores where the first few years of that journey have taken her, and the perspective she has acquired since it began.
While no longer considering herself Orthodox–and some responses to her earlier book suggest that the “rejection” is reciprocated–Feldman continues to identify herself as Jewish. However, she must work out what that will look like for her as she moves forward, and she decides that moving backward needs to be part of that process. Much of Exodus follows Feldman as she travels through Europe along the path of her Hungarian-born grandmother, a survivor of the concentration camps, working at coming to terms with the ways in which she herself could be called a survivor.
Exodus is a companion piece to Unorthodox, and while it’s not necessary to read both memoirs in chronological order, those who have read one will likely want to read the other, as they clearly inform each other. Exodus has the feel of a coming-of-age story, tracing the protagonist’s steps toward self-discovery. It meanders at times and feels somewhat unresolved in the end, leaving the reader with a sense that Feldman is still at the beginning of things, still searching and sorting out…but she’s not yet thirty, and that seems right.
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.
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.
From Chapter One:
“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.”