Unorthodox: Deborah Feldman's escape from Brooklyn to Berlin | DW Interview

Unorthodox: Deborah Feldman's escape from Brooklyn to Berlin | DW Interview

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Debra Feldman broke away from the ultra-orthodox Jewish community that she grew up in in New York she wrote a best-selling book about her escape called unorthodox it's a fascinating story all the more so because she now finds herself living right here in the German capital Berlin Deborah Feldman thank you very very much indeed for joining us today thank you I'm happy to be here lovely and thank you very much as well for being with us on the interview here on DW now Deborah I'd like to begin by asking you to describe if you would for us the strictly observant community that
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you grew up in and that you then rejected okay so the community I grew up in in New York was founded by Holocaust survivors mostly Hungarian Holocaust survivors who believed that the Holocaust had been a punishment for assimilation and for Zionism and they designed a sort of new ghetto in the middle of New York City and they believed that the only way to prevent another punishment another Holocaust from happening was to develop a
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lifestyle that was stricter than any Jewish lifestyle that had been lived before and every single rule that they designed was like an extreme interpretation of a Jewish law and they lived this extreme interpretation because they believed that they were appeasing God by doing this and that God would have mercy on them that he would quell his anger against the Jews people the name of the community is the Satmar community can you just explain for us where the name actually comes from the name comes from a town and the Hungarian
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Romanian border satu mathy yeah and it's called Satmar because it was named after the village from which the rabbi of our community came but if you won't go back historically and you look at the Hasidic movement which was a sort of a mystical movement within Judaism that was during its time very rebellious and very anti Orthodox it was based in different towns and cities and each town and city would have its own rabbi and this rabbi would acquire a following and the following will be named after the town so when the
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surviving Hasidic members of these towns came to the US they formed groups again and themselves after the town's they had come from or the rabbi's they had followed and so my community was mostly Hungarian survivors who were following the rabbi who came from the town of such a Molly and he was a very radical person already before the war and became much more radical after the war so as you've explained the community members grew up very much under the shadow of the Holocaust as you did - and I noted in one of your previous interviews you said
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the following I cannot remember a moment when I was not aware of my identity as a descendant of Holocaust survivors that's a very painful mindset it's not necessarily painful if that's all you know it's simply a fact of life I what I meant to say with that is that I can't remember having like a consciousness and not being aware that the Holocaust happened but that is not to say that I suffered very much every day from this knowledge I think I can describe a kind
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of cumulative suffering that has come with me as I have grown up and I have taken with me a lot of irrational fears from my childhood but during that time I didn't acknowledge it or experience it as suffering I just experienced it as normal I thought it was like this for everyone and I loved the people who raised me very very much and the fact that they were survivors made me feel of course that my suffering could not compare to theirs and since I loved them I never wanted to complain about what I
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went through because I only was aware of what they went through mm-hmm a very important aspect of how you grew up is that the Germans were were vilified and Damned as being the perpetrators of the Holocaust what was your understanding of what real Germans might have been like when you were growing up it wasn't just that they were vilified it it was that again that sort of mystical view of Hasidic people turned Germans into demons so they weren't human anymore they were demons sent by God to get us and I remember my
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grandmother telling me things like like Hitler had chicken feet but he never took off his shoes so you wouldn't see but if you took off his shoes you'd see you had chicken feet and he wasn't a human being he was a devil these are the stories I grew up with and it that's all I heard and it really has become a it became in the end the part of my perspective on the world and it took a long long time to separate all of those ideas from the ideas I picked up by traveling and meeting people in real life and having like learning how to humanize people who
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weren't Jewish I just like to go back to one another important aspect at the Satmar community that it was certainly a harsh environment I think for everybody involved including men but especially women yeah it's a harsh environment because everything is fear driven so you're living in a constant state of fear and you're taught that God is exist only to be feared and you're always afraid of punishment and you're always afraid of doing something wrong but I think for women it's extremely difficult because women are really seen as threatening in this community they need
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to be completely controlled because they're the ones who are reproducing and the community survives and and has the amount of power and stability it has because it can control the woman's reproduction so women are are giving birth to between 10 and 20 children and this isn't 20 it is average in my community at least and this is making sure that the community grows at an extremely fast rate but if the women are not controlled then the the existence and the permanence and the future of the community cannot be secured so in order
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to control the women they have this intense fear I think of a female body and female sexuality and so they turned this into into the source of evil they turned this into the big threat and women are told that their bodies are very dirty and very shameful and that their sexuality is is inherently evil and that they have to work their whole life just to compensate themselves and the people around them for the evil they represent and for the threat that they pose and you grow up and you learned that the body is disgusting that you are
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disgusting because you are somehow connected to your body but yet you have to use your body you have to use your body to service the community so you're always living in this contradictory state of your body is terrible but your body is important you mentioned the word control how similar do you think your experience might have been to other women's experiences in other similar communities perhaps in other religions you know maybe small details are different but the feelings the experiences the major pressures they're all the same and I've heard this from Christian women and from Muslim women and from Hindu women so I don't think there is that
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much of a difference I think religious communities especially extreme religious communities seem to function pretty much in the same way and maybe they call her God by a different name but in the end it's about people and it's about people wanting power hmm you broke away from the community when you were 23 years old how great was the sense of liberation that's a tough question I think the feeling of liberation maybe came later I think in the beginning I didn't feel much of anything was a big shock a big risk to
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take there was of course a distinct chance that I would fail and I knew this there was also a chance that I would lose my child and I had done everything for my child so there's just an inning there was just immense fear and a feeling of floating you know not being tied down to anything not knowing who I was as a person not knowing what my future would look like it was extremely frightening probably I survived it the way most people survive times like this by not thinking too much and the thinking came later and what's
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interesting is is that the hardest time or the hardest part of leaving was actually when things got better because then I was able to think again and then I was able to sort of process for the first time what I had done and it really hit me in a very hard way and it took a long time to kind of just work through that the echo of my actions so after you broke away from the Satmar community you went on a quest you went on a voyage of self-discovery or a journey of self-discovery effectively that journey has brought you now to the this extraordinary fact you have ended up
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living in the German capital Berlin why well that's a really great question I think it started actually with the obsession with Germans because I had heard all my life that the Germans were evil and they hated me and I absorbed a lot of the the stereotypes because in my community they kind of like echoed back all these Nazi ideas so they were kind of obsessed with blood purity in my community and like being a hundred percent pure Jewish just like the Germans were about being hundreds in pure Aryan and they incorporated this idea as well that blond people were
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genetically better and look nicer and it was really kind of obvious to me as I grew up that a lot of the the Nazi ideas had kind of stayed in the community and they had absorbed like the propaganda themselves so when I left I was sort of obsessed with like how to deprogram that part of myself how to stop believing that I was inferior because I wasn't German because I was Jewish and when I came to Europe to sort of research my family history and especially how my grandmother had lived before the war I spent a lot of time in
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Germany following her footsteps because she had been incarcerated in Germany throughout the war but also trying to see what Germans were really like just being really curious and but scared at the same time and then over time realizing that I was healing myself in a way that I was deprogramming myself just by being here and when I came to Berlin I don't see Berlin as Germany I see Berlin in a way as the capital of the West and to me it's the city where where everyone can find a home where everyone can find freedom it's the last bastion
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against oppression if we shall be dramatic and I feel as I feel very I feel as free here as I think I can possibly feel whereby when people ask you who you are where you are from you don't say I'm Jewish you say I'm from New York that's true I do not Sandra because I'm still living in Germany and because there are still neo-nazis and there's fear there's resistance the Nazis right there are Nazis here I've met them and there's also fear of the immigrants because you have a lot of anti-israel sentiment and a lot of
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people cannot separate anti-israel sentiment from anti-jewish sentiment so of course I'm frightened and and this is something about what it's like to be in Europe as a Jewish person this is the shock I think coming from America to Europe because American Jewish people take it completely for granted that they can be whoever they are and nobody is actually going to even classify them when when I announced that I was Jewish in America nobody put me in a Jewish box they just heard it and said okay but here if I say I'm Jewish it's not just the fear of being hated it's the fear of
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being put in a drawer and not being perceived as an individual mm-hmm fascinating thoughts that provoke man no we like to conclude the interview on DW Berg three incomplete sentences and asking you to complete the sentences the first one the main thing I have learnt on my journey so far is that there's good and bad everywhere and that it's hard to generalize to train this is an important question you've mentioned your grandmother a very important figure in your life the one thing I would like to
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tell her is that that she made me the person that I am and that I could never have accomplished all the things that I've accomplished without her influence the next big challenge in my life is learning how to let people in again Deborah Feldman thank you very very much indeed for joining us here on the interview today thank you

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