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interview : Deborah Feldman: "It is good to live without arriving anywhere"

Berlin - Deborah Feldman is waiting alone at the Babylon cinema, where we have an appointment. Maria Schrader is stuck on the train and wants to come later. Feldman is a writer. In her books she described her exit from her ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg and her flight to Berlin. Schrader has now filmed Feldman's story for Netflix as a series. While we are waiting for the director, we start the conversation on our own.

How are you doing in these uncertain times, Deborah?

So so. I have an anxiety disorder because I come from a church that is constantly concerned with the end of the world, in times like these the days are counted there.

Until the Messiah comes?

Or until the world ends. If we have behaved correctly, the Messiah will come, if not, we will perish. I grew up with this apocalypse thinking. And now it's catching up with me again. I fled this world, I don't want the world to end and I try to always think about what I have, my son, my work, my friends here in Berlin.

Did you leave your faith behind you when you quit?

Yes, I'm usually no longer a believer, but in these times who knows. Right now it is easy to understand why people are so vulnerable to these things.

What is it like for you to see your life on Netflix now, as a TV series?

It's not easy, the pain comes back sometimes. There is a scene where Yael, an Israeli who lives in Berlin, conveys my alter ego: “I know who you are, where you come from, you will never be like us. You have missed too much in your life. ”That is something that only one Jew can say to another Jew in this frankness. I've seen it dozens of times when I got out.

Also in Berlin?

More like New York. They made it clear to me that I only belong in my church and that I will never find a place in society anywhere else, that one will always recognize where I come from. I am told that in Israel to this day. I recently went to a Tel Aviv bar with a friend, and a man immediately spoke to me because he recognized where I came from.

How did he know?

The pronunciation, the posture.

The posture?

I've never had a straight back. Religious women in general move around as if to apologize for their presence. That won't go away. In the Jewish world, they know exactly who I am. You smell it. The good thing about Berlin is that I don't attract attention here because nobody recognizes my habitus.

Because the Jews were expelled and murdered under National Socialism and so far only a few live here, can you, as a dropout, now live more freely here?

Yes, in a way it is. Joseph Roth, the writer who came out of a shtetl, accused the German Jews of their prejudice against the shtetl Jews. I think I would have been affected by it today, too, if the Berlin Jews would have turned up their noses at me. Now there is a Jewish community here in Berlin again, but they have no idea of ​​the world I come from.


Deborah Feldman ...

  • .. has been Born in 1986 in New York and raised in the Hasidic Satmarer community in Williamsburg. Her mother left the ward when Deborah was a child and her father is mentally retarded. She lived with her grandparents, Holocaust survivors from Hungary, who see the persecution of the Jews as God's punishment, believe they have not been pious enough and live according to strictly religious rules. They speak Yiddish like the Eastern European shtetl Jews.
  • ... visited a religious school for girls, in which she was primarily prepared for life as a wife and mother. When she was 17, she married a man six years her senior from her ward. Their son was born at 19. Before leaving the church, she led a double life, wore jeans, took off her wig, and enrolled in college.
  • ... drew 2015 to Berlin and started a new life here with her son. Her autobiographical books "Unorthodox" and "Überbitten" were bestsellers.

What about the Israelis who live in Berlin?

These are often very special people who have a special sensitivity, my dropout friends are one of them.

How was your arrival here in Berlin?

I arrived here five years after I left, that was five years ago. I didn't have anything, just a room to sublet, but I found a group of friends pretty quickly in a café on Sonnenallee. Everyone came from somewhere, everyone had a story behind them. Typically Berlin. In Paris or London everything is always fixed. There is a lot of space in Berlin, everything is fluid. Within weeks we were a solid group.

How was it for your son?

He was eight when we got here and couldn't speak German. I tried enrolling him in John F. Kennedy School, but they didn't take applications in the middle of the school year. I then sat in front of the director's office and came back every day for two weeks. At some point he came out of his office and said: "Fine". My son found his way around the new world faster than I did.

Have you ever thought about moving to Hungary, the country your grandmother is from?

No. Hungary is a very beautiful country, but I couldn't live there because it didn't deal with its past. That's the great thing about Germany. In my generation in particular, we talk very openly about everything.

(The door opens, Maria Schrader comes, in her coat and with a trolley.)

DEBORAH FELDMAN: Hi, look who's here! I hug you from a distance, Maria, because of the virus.

MARIA SCHRADER: Hello! I need a coffee first. I was stuck on the train for four hours.

DEBORAH FELDMAN: You poor man.

MARIA SCHRADER: Why are you sitting here in the cinema?

Because the next interview should be here next door.

DEBORAH FELDMAN: The next interview is canceled. We could have sat in my apartment, Maria. We'll do it for me next time.

MARIA SCHRADER: If there is a next time.

DEBORAH FELDMAN: You know why the next interview is canceled.

MARIA SCHRADER: Suspected infection in the editorial office. Everything is being canceled right now. My next film project this summer is already shaking. No performance in the theater, no appearance at Lit. Cologne, it is not easy for freelancers.

DEBORAH FELDMAN: We're next in lockdown. We all have to deal with that.

MARIA SCHRADER: Shira Haas, our leading actress, was in New York for a screening and was afraid that she would have to be quarantined in Israel.

DEBORAH FELDMAN: But she can't come here now, can't give interviews, nothing. I think she is the most disappointed.

MARIA SCHRADER: You, me, all of us. We would now have gone to the premiere in France, "Unorthodox" was invited to the competition of "Series Mania", the largest series festival in Europe, but that's the way it is now, it is perfectly right to cancel everything.

"Unorthodox" is your first Netflix series?

MARIA SCHRADER: Yes, as a director it was also my first television work.

DEBORAH FELDMAN: At least it's not a movie. People can sit at home and watch the show.

MARIA SCHRADER: You're right there. TV and streamers are the winners in this situation, but the cinema industry has to be worried about. It would have been nice to see the joint work on a big screen and then send it out into the world.

DEBORAH FELDMAN: It's like writing a book without a premiere. Like it doesn't exist. It disappears in the ether. There are so many artists who are experiencing this right now and don't know what to do next. Fortunately, we're done with production. Imagine we were right in the middle of it. That would be a nightmare. And we don't even know how it will be in a week.

MARIA SCHRADER: Then it will show whether the hamster purchases were worth it, whether we can still go outside the door.

DEBORAH FELDMAN: I already had everything at home. I didn't have to buy anything. I am always prepared for World War III.

MARIA SCHRADER: How long do you expect a Third World War to last?

DEBORAH FELDMAN: I always stock up for six months. Drinks, canned food, toilet paper, frozen milk, meat, fish, vegetables.

SCHRADER: I'd have to stack supplies like that in the bedroom.

DEBORAH FELDMAN: Before you came we talked about where that came from with me. That everyone in my church is always waiting for the apocalypse.

MARIA SCHRADER: When they built an atomic bunker in their garden during the time of Gorleben, my mother said that the best thing to do was to drop the bomb directly on her head. Here I come after my parents: I don't want to survive the apocalypse at all.

Did you know fates like Deborahs before you started the series, Ms. Schrader?

MARIA SCHRADER: I was already on the road with Dani Levy in the orthodox areas of Brooklyn for our film “Meschugge”. There are also some films that are set in Hasidic communities. But this feminine perspective, Deborah's intimate and detailed description of becoming a woman, the expectations placed on her in this arranged marriage, and the pressures she was under was new to me.


Maria Schrader ...

  • ... has been Born in Hanover in 1965. Her mother was a sculptor, her father a painter. She attended the drama school in Vienna for two years, played at the Staatstheater Hannover, in Vienna, Venice, Bonn and was a member of the ensemble at the Schauspielhaus Hamburg from 2013 to 2017. Today she often plays there as a guest.
  • ... was standing 1989 for the first time in Dani Levy's film "RobbyKallePaul" in front of the camera. In “Meschugge” (1998) she played the Jewess Lena Katz and worked alongside Levy as a screenwriter. For this film, Schrader first conducted research in an ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn. The year before, she had become famous for her leading role in "Aimée and Jaguar".
  • ... led In 2005 he directed the film adaptation of Zeruya Shalev's novel “Love Life” for the first time. In 2016 she shot “Before the Dawn” about Stefan Zweig's time in exile. Maria Schrader has a 21 year old daughter and lives in Berlin. The four-part series "Unorthodox" runs from March 26th on Netflix.

And you, Deborah, what did you know about movies and about cinema in your old life?

DEBORAH FELDMAN: The first movie I secretly watched was Mystic River, a thriller, after that I was so traumatized because I thought the outside world was just like the community said it was. I never wanted to see a movie again after that. Now I am a theater lover, I love to see what is being played right in front of my eyes, so intimate, so intense. I am so sad that the theaters have now closed. How can I live without theater!

MARIA SCHRADER: You will hide yourself at home and write.

DEBORAH FELDMAN: Yes, but life in the theater is so haunting. I always have the feeling that I have run out of skin there. The emotions penetrate me, give me valuable input for my work, like a raw material that I can then process. Every writer needs input like this.

MARIA SCHRADER: How nice you say that! We were invited to Brooklyn by a strictly Orthodox family with three teenage daughters. They also told me that they had never seen a movie before. I was in my early twenties and we looked at each other with a mixture of fascination and alarm. Deborah's alter ego says in the film: "My family only cares that I am a good wife and mother." For me it was the opposite. My parents' greatest concern was that I would become a wife and mother. They looked after their war-disabled parents and felt trapped in the family. They wanted me to find happiness at work and become independent. Seen in this light, I lead a true-to-life life, unlike you, Deborah. We grew up in such different ways. I wonder what it is like when the sense and happiness lie in serving a large community, whether religious or political, which also offers belonging and protection. Or would you contradict me there, Deborah?

DEBORAH FELDMAN: If Esty had had the chance to find a place in her community, she would have stayed.

Why are you talking about Esty, the main character of the series, and not about yourself? Does that give you some distance from your life back then?

DEBORAH FELDMAN: Maybe, Esty isn't me, she's just leaning against me.

MARIA SCHRADER: Pressure is put on Esty at the moment when she doesn't work the way you expect her to. Until she can't take it anymore. I remember the first time I saw the photo of Deborah's wedding. The bride is covered with a veil through which she cannot see anything and is led to the canopy with both hands. There is so much in this picture, promise, mystery, trust, as well as external determination, coercion and prohibition. And it all depends on how the person under the veil is feeling. Suddenly I could imagine the film. The visual power.

DEBORAH FELDMAN: To be under the veil was weird. I only saw my feet and ugly shoes around me that urgently needed cleaning. I giggled thinking I was doing something wrong because I just feel stupid, not sacred at all. There were other moments when I felt that way too. For example the ritual bath in the mikveh. You think it has to be really great now, but then you don't feel it, you think it's just a stupid swimming pool.

MARIA SCHRADER: You describe the first mikveh experience as a horror in the book.

DEBORAH FELDMAN: Telling me it's just a swimming pool, what do they think they say, was of course also a defense mechanism for me. At the first dance with my husband, we couldn't look at each other for fear of puffing away.

MARIA SCHRADER: The wedding is one of my favorite sequences. From then on one hopes for the two as a couple. It was important to us that there were these romantic moments in the series.

DEBORAH FELDMAN: Totally, there was. How he puts his hand around her, around me, and then we start dancing.

MARIA SCHRADER: And then during the wedding you sit alone in a room for exactly seven minutes for the first time. Long enough to sleep together for the first time.

DEBORAH FELDMAN: It will of course not be carried out, it is only meant symbolically.

MARIA SCHRADER: There is such tension, such nervousness between the two of them that they suddenly burst out laughing. And you think it starts well, they could go together.

DEBORAH FELDMAN: That's the saddest thing about the whole story: There are two young people who want to be happy together. But they are not given a chance.

MARIA SCHRADER: The difference to your story is that as a ten-year-old you smuggled books into your bedroom and questioned the way you live. With Esty in the film, that happens later.

DEBORAH FELDMAN: Yes, but I wanted to leave that behind, in the great hope that I would also put all my doubts behind me that something was wrong with me. I experienced all of that all over again in the film. Some episodes were so intense for me that I couldn't talk about them. My therapist said that you can tell that I haven't processed everything as I thought. There is a scene in the film where Esty lets it all out at once. I've never done it like that, and I envied her so much for it.

MARIA SCHRADER She expresses what we, the audience, feel. At the same time you realize that there is no easy solution, nobody wants harm to the other.

DEBORAH FELDMAN: Everyone is trapped in their roles.

MARIA SCHRADER: And even if Esty is fleeing from her husband and her community, it is not suddenly easy. The longing remains.

Your mother also plays a role in the series, who dropped out like you, Deborah, and left you behind as a child. How is she today

DEBORAH FELDMAN: She lives with a woman in Brooklyn. We rarely see one another. It's different than in the movie. She also never explained to me why she left me as a small child, she is simply too traumatized herself. This is an example of how this church manages to break relationships, not to allow closeness at all. Even to my grandmother, the most important person to me. You couldn't even hug.

Couldn't you hug your grandmother?

DEBORAH FELDMAN: No, but I knew she loved me. I remember a moment when I was at summer camp in Upstate New York. Sometimes my grandmother would send me parcels of food. But once, for my 16th birthday, she also sent me a card: “Happy Birthday! Bubby! ”I cried with joy. Birthdays are not celebrated in my church. It is forbidden. My grandmother broke a taboo for me, and that's why this gesture meant so much to me.It was our secret. I have the card to this day, and to this day I find it difficult to establish closeness. Because I just don't know, don't understand. When someone hugged me for the first time at university, I was shocked and thought: What is this about? What do you want from me?

MARIA SCHRADER: When we usually hug each other in greeting, it doesn't feel artificial at all.

DEBORAH FELDMAN: I would never fake something like that. But it doesn't seem natural to me. As soon as I feel closeness, I still think: what? Awesome! This is now near! It knocks me out.

Is it actually difficult, now that anti-Semitism is on the rise, to tell Germans a story of Jews who behave strangely and live like in the Middle Ages?

DEBORAH FELDMAN Do you think the audience should be given extra information?

MARIA SCHRADER: In New York, too, many people have no idea about the life of the strictly Orthodox communities.

DEBORAH FELDMAN: That's a mistake that is often made. It took a long time before my book was translated into German because nobody dared to do it. You shouldn't underestimate the German audience. I went on a reading tour here and came across a lot of knowledge. The worst thing I've ever seen were naive questions.

Which for example?

DEBORAH FELDMAN: You, Maria, were there that evening. It was in the Academy of Arts. A woman asked where anti-Semitism came from.

MARIA SCHRADER: And phrased the question in a rather clumsy way.

DEBORAH FELDMAN: And the hostess freaked out, got very emotional, called her a racist.

You didn't think that was bad?

DEBORAH FELDMAN: No, such questions should be allowed. You cannot discuss it forever and ever so emotionally charged, it is just not fruitful. In the review of my book in the “Victory Column” magazine, the author, a gay man, wrote that he had found himself in my fate. He wrote that this exclusion was just as it was in his family. Many Berliners know this experience. Also to flee, to have to start again.

MARIA SCHRADER: People with a Muslim background wrote about the trailer on social media that they identify with it. It's both a very specific and at the same time a universal story.

Is your son interested in your story, Deborah?

DEBORAH FELDMAN: Not anymore, this phase is already over. But the film interests him now.

MARIA SCHRADER: Deborah and her son came to visit the set.

DEBORAH FELDMAN: He called his father afterwards and said: Dad, don't worry. Your figure is really great.

MARIA SCHRADER: Really?

DEBORAH FELDMAN: Yes, his papa was nervous. But now he's reassured.

MARIA SCHRADER: Shira Haas and Amit Rahav are a fantastic couple. I was also often nervous and then again and again overwhelmed by these actors.

How is your ex-husband doing today, Deborah?

DEBORAH FELDMAN: He got out too, four years later than me.

Does this have anything to do with you?

DEBORAH FELDMAN: Yes. At first he tried to convince me to come back. I said: But we weren't happy together. He said: What is luck! There were always these conversations. And one day he said: You're not coming back, are you? I said: No, I can't. A year later I saw him without his sidelocks. He had a new friend who was not religious, they have two children and they live far away from the community.

Are you still in contact with each other?

DEBORAH FELDMAN: Yes, we get on very well. We spoke on the phone just this morning. He actually wanted to come to Berlin at Easter and visit his son, but because of the corona virus, that will probably not work and will have to be postponed.

Can you imagine the show being secretly watched in your former Williamsburg ward?

DEBORAH FELDMAN: Yes, of course. Everyone there now has a smartphone. And it is already being discussed in Yiddish chat forums. It started as soon as Shira was cast.

MARIA SCHRADER: We got noticed when we were there on our research tour. There were also situations in which I felt uncomfortable, more like an intruder. We tell of people who under no circumstances want to be in the public eye. We dress up actors who do not or no longer belong to this community. You have to keep asking yourself: How far can you go?

What's your answer to that?

MARIA SCHRADER: We tried to understand the story in its complexity and to show different perspectives. No character is good or bad, even if their actions cause someone else to suffer. If the audience can connect emotionally, the film builds a bridge. It's always about how you tell something.

A rabbi wrote about you, Deborah: Your escape from your community would have opened only one door, but you will never arrive in your new world. What would you say to him?

DEBORAH FELDMAN: This rabbi assumes that I need a goal, that I have to get there, and otherwise I am unhappy. But that's not the case. I like it when everything is open and everything is possible. It is actually quite good to live without arriving anywhere.