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A third-generation refugee returns home

About Bitten
Forfatter: Deborah Feldman
Forlag: Secession Verlag (Sveits)

Despite all the conflicting feelings about the traces of Nazi Germany, American-Jewish Deborah Feldman feels for the first time at home.

(PS. This article is machine-translated from Norwegian)

You're a teenage girl – among ultra-Orthodox satire Jews in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. All education is patriarchal and is exclusively about prohibition; secular education is ruled out, the internet an abomination, you have neither radio nor television. Your mother tongue is Yiddish; English is prohibited. He who breaks the laws is condemned forever. You wear a standard wig, as female hair flying in the wind is an indecent sexual invitation. You have no knowledge of body and gender. You can't touch a man. You end up in an arranged marriage and give birth to a child at the age of nineteen. What are you doing?

You flee, twenty-three years old, with your little son, out of the environmental jersey, knowing that you can never return, even though New York is still the place you live. You live on canned beans, without child benefit or other public support. You secretly enroll in a college where you study literature and learn English. You get free legal aid to get out of the marriage with the right of care for your child. At the very least, write down your story. It is published and is on the New York Times bestseller list. Your name is Deborah Feldman.

A person who in such a short time makes such a dramatic leap into the unknown must necessarily end up in distress. 

Identity marathon and soul distress

This almost unreal CV has Feldman elaborated on in the book unorthodox, who, overnight, tossed her into the chaos of fame. Courage and gift were undoubtedly two good reasons for success, but equally likely is another factor: an "Anne-Frank Syndrome," in which the pure content of the narrative threatens to take its toll on the novel's form and style. Influenced by both the success and the publisher's wishes, Feldman wrote the sequel Exodus which did not achieve the same sales figures as the debut book. Now, however, the exile Feldman was embarking on a larger life project: Who am I? What is an "I"?

A person who in such a short time makes such a dramatic leap into the unknown must necessarily end up in distress. Several of the author's acquaintances who have tried the same detachment have ended up taking their lives. For Deborah Feldman, the rebellion resulted in a long-distance geographical and mental race – and a 700-page novel with the odd title About Bitten.

The book is – like a literary menora – divided into seven long chapters, one for each year after the flight. The German title reflects the Yiddish concept iberbetn, which can in short be translated with "reconciliation". The book is in German, a linguistic affirmation of the goal Feldman had set and meticulously achieved: a country and a language she could identify with. The author, having followed in his grandmother's footsteps through Europe in search of his roots, has finally settled in the lion's cave, Berlin. The grandmother, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary who had lost her entire family in a German concentration camp, was the only one in the Deborah family to be close. In her time, she managed to get to the United States, where she joined the Satmar Jews, whose main project is to deny all the past, shut the rest of the world out and live in a social and cultural cocoon.

To create oneself

Despite all the conflicting feelings of sin, shame, liberation and aversion to the traces of Nazi Germany, precisely Berlin is the first place Jewish Deborah feels at home. In this open and friendly metropolis, which, through the language, also connects with the mother tongue Yiddish, she can forget about the dichotomy of Jew / non-Jew and simply feel like a person among other people.

Although "simply" it has by no means been. For a person who grows up without access to their own personality has a lot to take back.

Feldman, as you experience her during interviews, is a spontaneous, well-articulated young woman. The answer to how she found the strength to break the satmar sect against all odds is short: son Isaac. She wanted to prevent him from growing up with the same heavy burden that she herself had to bear, so as to feel "trapped in freedom," although the victim role is otherwise a peripheral theme for Feldman. The challenge was to find new frame of reference for identification. "Who am I?" was a question she initially had to answer with "no one".

During the period when she began to reach for a larger world, the exercises consisted mostly of monkeying for others. The way they dressed, talked, turned around. But she could not ignore the Jewish heritage. On the contrary – through a year-long project to find her roots, which took her to the continent and places where she could experience the Jewish trauma on her body, her new self was found and finely ground. An in-bed with the enemy aspect came to her advantage: getting a relationship with the Germans dropped all defense and contributed to catharsis and reconciliation on several levels – with the "devil people", the past, the fear, her own imperfection and even life as it is here and now.

The main project of Satmar Jewels is to deny all the past, shut the rest of the world out and live in a social and cultural cocoon. 

The place of belonging

An important part of the I-theme is Feldman going over with astonishingly light harelab. The sudden transition from poverty and anxious loneliness to wealthy bestselling author and media literacy seems to have played little role in her life, except that with better finances she can realize a new life for her small family. The money also helped her to take the consequence of another insight: that she was neither a person nor a writer in the United States. Americans, as she sees them, are not a reading people; not like in Europe, like in Berlin, where you find a bookstore "on every street corner".

Still, she gives credit to Americans, who were needed on the path to personal freedom: “I practiced hiding my Jewishness until I was sure it was safe to lay it down for the day. I had learned something very American – going to be 'normal'. "

Yet another small piece has fallen into place. But most important of all for Deborah Feldman is the realization that she is no longer a refugee but someone who has returned.

Ranveig Eckhoff
Eckhoff is a regular reviewer for Ny Tid.

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