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Like all writing, however, ex-Orthodox memoirs are not direct transmissions of experience, but a performance of that experience for the reader. No matter how unusual an author’s background, or how many difficulties she overcame, no writer is exempt from the demands of good writing. Like all memoirists, OTD authors must elicit the reader’s identification, yet stand apart to attract their interest. They must establish the value of their stories, while creating voices that are sympathetic and engaging. It’s one thing to have a story to tell — it’s another thing to be able to tell it.
That’s a thought worth keeping in mind when reading what seem like the bookends of the contemporary ex-Orthodox genre: Shalom Auslander’s “Foreskin’s Lament,” published in 2007, and Deborah Feldman’s “Exodus,” a sequel to her bestselling 2012 memoir, “Unorthodox.” These books provide a useful comparison in part because of chronology — Auslander helped kick off the current wave of memoirs, while Feldman’s is the latest example — but also because of their different approaches to writing.
Auslander, who has contributed radio pieces to programs like “This American Life,” possesses the most performed persona of any of these authors. He dramatizes his inner conflict through heightened episodes of self-castigation — an antagonistic relationship with a mean-spirited God features prominently in his work — and he uses a self-conscious comedic voice to achieve his effects. At times, it seems as though all of his writing is meant to be read aloud. Thus, for example, he describes his early Jewish education not as he would have experienced it at the time, but through the lens of belated ridicule:
The people of Monsey were terrified of God, and they taught me to be terrified of Him, too — they taught me about… a man named Moses, who escaped from Egypt, and who roamed through the desert for forty years in search of a Promised Land, and whom God killed just before he reached it — face-plant on the one-yard line — because Moses had sinned, once, forty years earlier. His crime? Hitting a rock.
Auslander deserves credit for recognizing the legitimacy of his experience as a literary subject, and other OTD writers cite him as an inspiration for the telling of their own stories. But Auslander’s facetious tone (“face-plant on the one-yard line”) undermines the value of his work. By refusing to play it straight with his own life, he makes its agonies seem frivolous.
If Auslander is overly conscious of his performance, Feldman seems completely unaware of the persona she creates. In her first book, she described her upbringing by her hasidic grandparents in the Satmar community of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, followed by an unhappy arranged marriage and her departure from the hasidic community with her 3-year-old son. Although the book received criticism for alleged mistakes, omissions and outright fabrications, Feldman’s story is, on the whole, well told. Even Jewish readers, for whom Auslander’s Modern Orthodox Monsey upbringing might not have seemed particularly exotic, were likely to have their interest piqued by Feldman’s Satmar background.
“Exodus,” however, is another case entirely. Given the commercial achievement of “Unorthodox,” it’s not surprising that Feldman and her publisher would try to repeat that success. But Feldman has already told the story she had to tell. Unlike Auslander, who began by writing short stories and followed his memoir with a novel, Feldman hasn’t shown an ability to write about anything other than herself. And in “Exodus,” that amounts to a grab bag of travel and dating experiences, filtered through an oblivious self-importance. Thus, after wearing her learning on her sleeve throughout the book, referencing Baudrillard and Émile Durkheim and asserting her superior appreciation for poetry (thanks to the classes she took at Sarah Lawrence, which she mentions repeatedly), we get this:
I did not have daddy issues. That wasn’t why I was attracted to, or kept attracting, older men… I had not so much been hurt by my father as I had wrestled with his mental and physical absence… How to fathom the filling of my personal space with a male figure when none had featured in my original story?
It’s not just Feldman who should be embarrassed here, but also the editor and publisher who let her get away with this. Indeed, reading “Exodus” is like watching Feldman walk into traffic — you want to reach out and stop her, but you can’t. At least, now we know where to find a good description of what daddy issues are.
If OTD authors face the same difficulties as other writers, the challenges of memoir are also heightened by the nature of their stories. As with immigrant writers, or Jewish memoirists’ Christian and Muslim counterparts — the OTD genre is really an ecumenical phenomenon — the poles of sensationalism and sympathy align neatly with the events of their lives. The world they describe can be split between the exotic past and the mainstream present, religion and secularism, ignorance and knowledge, doubt and confidence, restriction and freedom. When it comes to the difference between the background they describe and the reader to whom they speak, their stories must traverse the distance between “other” and “us.” They need to capitalize on cultural difference, and overcome it at the same time.