From Scandal to Emotional Vulnerability: The Trajectory of OTD Memoirs and Fiction

On October 29, 2020, over 60 people tuned in from all over the world to participate in “On the Margins of Contemporary Jewish Orthodoxies,” a symposium organized by Baruch College. The symposium featured talks on historical predecessors of contemporary exiters, the social realities of contemporary exiters, people who live on the margins of orthodoxies, and the portrayal of exiters in literature and film.

Naomi Seidman noted in the final keynote of the day that this is an “OTD moment” in multiple arenas: on social media, OTD groups abound; adding to the visibility of those social media groups are the films and TV shows centering or featuring OTD characters and narratives; and in the academic field of Jewish Studies, there is discussion of creating a separate OTD Studies discipline.

In addition to the formal presentations, the Zoom chat was alive with conversation from presenters and attendees. The presentations themselves were academic in style and content, and – in typical OTD fashion – the chat resembled a bais medrash coffee room, moving with ease between textual and philosophical analysis, social and emotional confessions, and jokes that ranged from intellectual or tinged with pain and sadness, to the kind with the punchline of “magical goyishe penis.”

There was much overlap between almost all of the presentations. I had prepared a talk about OTD memoirs and fictional films. Earlier in the day, Zalman Newfield talked about how the OTD experience matches or doesn’t match the experiences depicted in OTD memoirs, based on sociological research. His talk touched on both of the memoirs I would speak about later. Sara Feldman, speaking on the same panel I was on, talked about OTD films in Yiddish. Her focus was on a period earlier than the last decade, which I would focus on. But she did touch on the three films I would talk about. The overlap was generative, each of our talks building on what was said before.

In full disclosure, I don’t work on OTD Studies as part of my main work. I work on childhood and children’s literature, and my dissertation is on American Haredi children’s literature, 1980-2000. The focus there is not on those leaving the community, but on the community itself. Of course, the topics are connected. But I submitted an abstract to this symposium because I could not pass up the chance to talk with scholars about a topic so interesting in general and so personal to me; and because I had *thoughts* with a capital T about these memoirs and films, and this would give me an opportunity to talk about them and not feel like I’m shouting into a void.

But after this symposium, the whole day, left me exhilarated and recharged, I realized that while I may not be itching to be a part of that field, it has never left me. One of the organizers sent me a private message after I finished my presentation, asking if I had ever published any of this. I was startled – this talk was literally just me writing up some thoughts and conversations I’d had on Facebook with friends. I spent a grand total of three days actually writing the presentation, the weekend before the symposium. (I had been thinking about it for far longer than that, of course.) I wasn’t even sure I was saying anything that wasn’t obvious! And he thought it was publishable??

Anyway, I am not going to work on any of this in the near future because I really, really (like, really) need to finish writing my dissertation. But how can I deprive people of my brilliance? 😉 So I’m posting the presentation and my talk here, lightly edited for the different format of the blog.

Title slide: From Scandal to Emotional Vulnerability: The Trajectory of OTD Memoirs and Fiction

Anyone who was aware of Deborah Feldman’s memoir, Unorthodox, when it was published in 2012 undoubtedly remembers the controversy and furious debate surrounding the book – maybe even more than the book itself. There were three main groups of reactions to the book: The Hasidic and frum communities reacted with anger; people who had left Orthodox Judaism reacted with skepticism on the whole; and people who had no experience with either community ate it up eagerly and praised Feldman for her courage.

Slide: The cover of Feldman’s book “Unorthodox,” and lines quoted below.

This is not necessarily a flaw in the design: as Feldman acknowledges in the afterword to the revised 2020 edition:

“Writing a book was part of a much bigger plan, a necessity if I was to truly be free to start a new life with my son outside of our community. The publicity it would bring me would serve as a tool, my lawyer had explained, would provide me with leverage against people who would normally render me voiceless and therefore powerless.”

The project of writing the book was, for Feldman, both a creative process initiated by her classes at Sarah Lawrence, and a tool in her journey to self-actualization. That the people who loved the book enough to stand by her side were those who could prove useful and powerful in her fight against the forces holding her back is no coincidence. She wielded the tools she had at her disposal, and the ability to shock with a glimpse into a usually-cloistered community and the “scandalous” rejection of that community was one of those tools.

Even in the first edition of the memoir, Feldman acknowledges that she uses her unique past, ironically the place where her voice and individuality were denied, to stand out among the crowd. For her college admissions essays:

“The first two are autobiographical. I think to myself, This is my shtick. I gotta use whatever I got.”

All high school seniors are advised to find the one thing that makes them unique, makes them stand out from the crowd, and it just so happens that Feldman’s is her Hasidic upbringing.

Naomi Seidman makes a similar comment in her review of the fictionalized Netflix mini-series based on Feldman’s memoir.

In this version, the protagonist, Esty, is not a writer but a musician: a pianist and a singer. One of the most emotional moments in the mini-series comes in the fourth and final episode, when Esty auditions for admission into a prestigious Berlin conservatory. Her first song choice is Schubert’s “An die musik”. When the admissions committee asks her why she chose to sing that song, which is not the right song for her voice, she tells them the story of her Hasidic grandmother listening to Schubert’s records in secret.

Slide: Still of Esty singing from the show “Unorthodox,” and lines from Seidman’s review quoted below.

When the committee asks “why secret,” Seidman writes:

“Maybe, just maybe Esty heard that question and saw her shot. The only way forward was through the one thing she had that everyone wanted, the story of the “insular community” she had left behind.”

The admissions committee allows her to sing another song, and she performs a powerful rendition of “Mi bon siyach,” the song traditionally sung as the kallah circles the chosson under the chuppah. Again Seidman explains:

“Even the Hasidic song was only what it was because it came with this story of a woman finally allowed to sing, a secret finally “scandalously” shared.”

Just as Feldman used her scandalous, titillating story to break her way into the writing market, Esty does too. She knows that this is her “shtick,” that outsiders would sit up and pay attention to this story about a community of repression and strict rules, and about a young girl breaking free and finding her voice.

The structure of Feldman’s memoir is somewhat at odds with the title of her book. Although the title promises a “scandalous rejection,” the book delivers eight chapters of Feldman’s life within the Satmar community and only one chapter detailing her escape.

Part of this is due to the timeline on which she wrote the book: She had only just left the community when she wrote it. In fact, her meeting with her editor and subsequent rush to finish the book is a significant component of Chapter 9: Up in Arms. If she was going to use this memoir as a tool, as a way to prevent the community from silencing her, it makes sense that it comes at the beginning of her escape. But that means that the focus of the book is on the ills of her family and community, rather than on her life outside of it. Her sequel, Exodus (2015), chronicles more of her journey afterwards.

But the first book, Unorthodox, not only focuses on the community more than the rejection; it also includes reflections that are not thought-through, at times childish, and almost always angry. As any good therapist will tell someone experiencing post-traumatic stress, anger is a natural and necessary stage. But anger is not the goal – the goal is to be able to reflect on the trauma and heal from it. Anger is an indication that the affected person is still hurting.

Slide: Feldman signing books, and lines from her book quoted below

Feldman addresses this, albeit obliquely, in her afterword to the 2020 revised edition, when she describes the feeling that overcame her when she wrote her first memoir: as she sank into one memory, and then the next:

“the process began to feel intuitive, like I could shut off the part of myself concentrated on outlines and chapter and characters and all the other things I had learned in college workshops and just trust some long-lost inner voice.”

As she writes a novel years later, she waits “for that ghost to haunt me again,” and

“I have come to understand that she has always been ready and willing, and that it is I who have not always been tolerant of her presence. Because she is from the past, and the rest of me is very much trying to be in the present, so as not to be burdened by anything that came before. We are two women, one lost and one found, still trying to find a way to work together to tell a story.”

One of the key rules about writing memoir is that it’s not therapy – the writing process is an extremely useful tool in therapy, but the public-facing work needs to move past that. The purpose of memoir is to give readers something they can identify with on some level. But Feldman’s book, written by someone who, by her own admission, had not yet reconciled the parts of her that were still hurting, aims to expose, to “provide a glimpse,” as many reviews said, into a secretive community.

Later memoirs, even those published just a few years later, are less angry; their structure is not so heavily weighted toward the author’s childhood and adolescent years; and they provide enough reflection to provide relief from the pain, and from the anger that characterizes the first stages of healing from trauma.

Slide: the cover of Deen’s book “All Who Go Do Not Return,” and lines from the book quoted below.

Shulem Deen published his memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return, in 2015, three years after Feldman’s. But he began writing his memoir before Feldman’s was published. Unlike Feldman, he was not using his memoir as a tool in his journey, so he had the luxury and the advantage of revising, editing, revising, and editing again. Feldman’s memoir begins with a prologue in which her mother tells her about their family, and the story proper begins with Devorah as a young child. Shulem Deen’s memoir, on the other hand, begins with the sentence:

“I wasn’t the first to be expelled from our village, though I’d never known any of the others.”

The story Deen tells is personal. But from the very first sentence, the reader is aware of a vast number of others who have shared this very personal experience and is thus invited to see themselves in whichever part of the story resonates with them. This is a story of a single individual within a community, whereas Feldman’s is a story about a single individual and a community. The difference is subtle, but crucial. Deen does not shy away from describing traditions, rituals, and practices of his New Square community. But the story is not about the community, nor is it designed to shock or to titillate outsiders who want to peer into this “strange” world. It is a story of one person who finds other like-minded people despite the community.

In addition, Deen had spent years reflecting on his past by the time his memoir was published. The Shulem of the text is easily distinguished from the Shulem who wrote it for the first half of the book, because Deen is able to critically reflect on his past. He does not paint himself as a saint. He is anxious for the reader to understand that he is not a saint, speaking frankly about the times when he hit his students, when he perpetuates the system that he later comes to be horrified at. Deen takes the reader on an intense emotional journey, a journey of interiority.

The epilogue of All Who Go Do Not Return narrates a day Deen spends with his son Akiva. When he is told that his son Hershy would not be joining them as planned, he feels “a rising sense of fury.” He writes that

“it was eight weeks since I’d last seen the boys. Several years since I’d seen Tziri and Freidy – and even Chaya Suri stopped coming soon after I moved to Brooklyn, after she turned thirteen.”

He thinks about how their lives may have changed, and how he knows nothing about that.

“My calls and letters continue to go unanswered. The cell phones I bought them must never have been charged, always going straight to voice mail, my messages unreturned. In the beginning, Akiva would call on occasion, but now, even he no longer does. I can sense, with each visit, the growing distance between us. Soon, I am all too aware, the boys, too, will turn thirteen.”

The paragraph begins with “a rising sense of fury” at the response of “does it matter” to his question about why Hershy will not be joining him that day, but Deen leads us right past that anger and into a sense of deep sadness about the reality of missing out on his own children’s lives. Deen lays himself open, vulnerable and raw, in a way that Feldman doesn’t.

So what accounts for this difference? A lot of things, of course.

Slide: comparison of Feldman’s memoir an Deen’s memoir

We can’t ignore the gender difference – men have certain advantages, even in such restricted communities. There’s also the stage each author was at when writing their memoir.

But I want to turn from the authors themselves, from their choices and lives, and look at the market. Would Shulem Deen’s raw, vulnerable, painful memoir have sold as well if the non-frum and non-OTD world had not been shocked and scandalized and titillated by Feldman’s memoir first? That’s a speculative question, but I think the answer is no.

Shock factor, as we all know too well now, plays an important role in disseminating an idea. To the non-frum and non-Jewish reading public, that delicious feeling of being able to express horror at “them,” and to righteously support a young woman fighting for her freedom, opened the doors for more memoirs about this community and those who left it.

And of course, publishers accept and reject manuscripts based on how well they think the books will sell. The controversy raised over Feldman’s memoir, no matter where you come down on that question, also helped open the market. Those who stood firmly with Feldman – most often non-frum and non-OTD people – jumped at the chance to read more exposé, more scandal, in Deen’s and other memoirs. Those who were disappointed in Feldman’s style or portrayal – mostly OTD people – jumped at the chance to read a different version of their own story and to perhaps find more identification and catharsis through that. Either way, I think it’s safe to say that Feldman’s book, with all its controversies and all its problems, paved the way for more nuanced and more vulnerable memoirs, including Deen’s.

[As a side-note: I’m not including One of Us because it’s neither memoir nor fiction. But of course, the documentary play a large role in this whole story.]

This same trajectory appears in fictional portrayals of those who leave Hasidic and frum Orthodoxy.

Slide: stills from the films “Mendy: A Question of Faith,” “Felix et Meira,” and “Disobedience”

The 2003 film Mendy: A Question of Faith portrays the freedom and wild abandon experienced by a young man breaking free of his Hasidic community. Mendy is immediately caught up in drug-dealing, he has sex workers thrown at him in seedy clubs, he takes psychedelic drugs and dances away the night in a flashing, whirling sequence, and wakes up in bed next to a naked woman whose name he never knows. Basically, it’s a vision of what our parents and teachers warn is waiting for us. It’s a wild breaking free, and it deals with very little of Mendy’s feelings about his community except anger.

The 2014 Felix et Meira is quieter. It focuses on Meira’s pain – and joy as she finds her own path. The final shot of the movie, in which she holds her son and sits with her new partner in a boat drifting down the river, suggests that she stays on the “outside.” But it doesn’t make it look like an easy future. She and her new partner are both aware of the painful journey still ahead.

The 2017 film Disobedience, based on the book of the same name, is likewise quieter, more internally-focused. The story centers on Ronit’s feelings about her father, her uncle, her childhood friends; and on Esty’s feelings about her husband and Ronit. There is some scandal in that people in the community find out about Esty and Ronit’s relationship, but the focus of the story is on the pain and grief of leaving one’s community, of finding one’s path – not on shock or scandal. That Disobedience was embraced by non-frum, non-OTD, and non-Jewish lesbians as a “lesbian film” is further proof of its resonance on an emotional level, rather than the titillating narrative of repression and freedom in Mendy’s story.

The mini-series based on Feldman’s memoir encapsulates this shift: while the 2012 memoir focuses on the harshness of Feldman’s family and community, the 2020 fictional mini-series focuses instead on Esty’s deeply intimate struggle to find herself and carve a place for herself in the world.

Slide: Titled “Conclusions,” showing covers of 6 memoirs, 3 films, and 1 miniseries, with contact info

In terms of the market, exposés and scandalous narratives may have been necessary to jumpstart interest in the OTD experience, as the earlier memoirs including Feldman’s suggest. But by now, thankfully, there is room for emotional vulnerability, for narratives of pain and grief, which can lead to a collective healing for both OTD individuals and the frum community.

2 thoughts on “From Scandal to Emotional Vulnerability: The Trajectory of OTD Memoirs and Fiction

  1. This is a really thoughtful analysis. I’m glad you put this online. I look forward to referencing it in an article I’m working on related to OTD memoirs.

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