It was a day of love. Cupids twittered through the air, roses were exchanged, arrows were shot and a dozen or so of us SLC students filed into our class with a round table for a roundtable on a recent Jewish memoir, Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox, etc. All semester we have been discussing classic Jewish memoirs, and Valentine’s Day 2013 would be specially dedicated to last year’s hot tome about one woman’s scandalous rejection of her roots.
The discussion was presided over by scholar of Hasidic silk, Prof. Glen Dynner, who selected this book from hundreds of possible choices. Royalty-wise, the authoress must surely have made $18 from our bunch at least, depending on the terms of her book deal. Are SLC alums given priority in SLC literature classes? Inquiring minds wonder.
Roundtable guests included UCLA professor David Myers, who happens to be writing a book about the holy shtetl Kiryas Joel, and could tell our class definitively that “Satmar” does not now and never meant St. Mary in Romanian (Wikipedia says so too), my friend Joel Feldman, who happens to be the “Feldman” in Deborah Feldman, Hershey Goldberger, Frimet’s husband and another KJ “specimen” along with myself, making up our Hasidic quartet at the roundtable.
Joel was there because naturally he was interested in an academic discussion about a book in which he reluctantly guest stars, and also to convey publicly some of his own impressions and respond to public perceptions of him. Hershey was Joel’s wingman. Frimet was there to pummel and debate our professor into oblivion. I was there to cringe over the proceedings. And Myers was there to conduct Satmar research.
After a brief introduction from Dynner and Myers, the roundtable was directed to discuss the question of reliability in memoirs in general and the question of misimpressions in this memoir in particular. Was the memoir genre a kind of permission to bend the truth under the general heter that everyone has their own personal truth? The roundtable agreed that there was no definitive answer, but some thought that they were critical readers and could tell if the memoirist was being self-serving, deceptive, etc. Most readers like to believe they are intelligent, thank you. Someone thought that it was odd that Deborah Feldman seemed to see herself with a halo with nary a self-deprecating word to be found in the book. The roundtable also considered whether or not this 12-month old book may have staying power. Could we imagine it still being read and analyzed after 200 years ala Solomon Maimon’s influential, genre-creating memoir? We conceded that we would meet at yet another roundtable in 200 years and find out. Then everyone took off their clothes and dived into the tank and wove baskets as per Minhag Sarah Lawrence College.
Here is how some of the discussion went down:
PROFESSOR: I know many students feel strongly about the book. Some of you had said some very strong things against the book – the lies and such. Then again… some of you had to sneak into my office to admit that you loved the book. I urge you to keep an open mind.
So, we have here today some “original specimens” of this community described in the book…
FRIMET: Oh, nicely put.
PROFESSOR: Yes… We have Frimet and Frieda… who we know grew up in KJ. Frimet’s husband… And we have Joel Feldman, the husband in the book. Joel, why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us what you thought?
JOEL: Hi, I’m Joel, Eli in the book.
ELI: I go by Joel. I grew up in Kiryas Joel and I got married to Deborah Feldman – we had one child. I will talk a little about how she paints a picture in the book to make everyone look a certain way so she could paint herself as the hero. For example the watch – she gave me a standard watch everyone gets. And she got an expensive watch from us. But this somehow became… a story about her suffering. It’s true, we gave her a watch. She didn’t lie about it. But like this, everything somehow feels like it’s said in a way to make her look like a hero.
GIRL WITH THE RED LIPSTICK: Oh, a James Frey story??!
PROFESSOR: Hmmm. So did she misrepresent, distort? If she did, is there a problem?
MYERS: To come to the defence of the book, I don’t think modern memoir should be taken as fact. Modern memoir is about depicting your own reality as you experience it.
SOMEONE, I-DON’T-KNOW-WHO I-WAS-BUSY: What about Slander?
MYERS: Now that’s already a line I think you can’t cross.
FRIEDA: But this isn’t merely a memoir, this becomes representative of an entire culture. Shouldn’t that concern us?
MYERS: You have to take something like this with a huge heap of salt.
FRIEDA: Perhaps as a historian you do. But it’s obvious that most people take their education about Hasidism from this book. Isn’t that a problem?
PROFESSOR: Should she be responsible, by telling her story, for what people learn about her perceived surrounding through her book? If she experienced Hasidism as negative, should she be responsible for people taking her experience for everyone?
DICTIONARY BOY: I think, if we’ll turn to page 23, and read about how she depicts herself, she herself admits to lying. I think this accurately reflects to the reader the writer’s personality. A critical reader can understand what to accept. I think this is like an Ayn Rand novel. It’s very dark and it’s not literal but we appreciate reading it and don’t take it so literally.
ELOQUENT GIRL FROM CHRISTIAN FAMILY: I also had a hard time trusting her – even though I don’t think she needs to tell verifiable objective facts. I thought the absence of reflection and self-deprecation made her a less likeable and trustworthy narrator.
PROFESSOR: Yes, but that’s what writers do. How is she different from the memoir by the 19th century woman Pauline Wengeroff?
SMARTER THAN EVERYONE SLC STUDENTS: We were very hard on Wengeroff for her depiction of her husband.
PROFESSOR: What about Solomon Maimon, how does this book compare to Maimon’s story of a pariah leaving the Hasidic community?
ELOQUENT GIRL FROM A CHRISTIAN FAMILY: I think Maimon had technique, he was self deprecating and built character. I don’t think this book will stand the test of time in the same way.
PROFESSOR: What was her motivation in writing this book?
GIRLS WITH RED LIPSTICK: I thought from the end of the book that like, she was clearly in dire financial straits. She needed money. It was her ticket out.
MY FAVORITE CLASSMATE WHO KNITTED ME A SCARF: Money didn’t seem to be a problem… there was money for babysitters and Sarah Lawrence and hypnosis and the grandparents… she didn’t seem to know poverty.
PROFESSOR: I think she writes because she has a story to tell.
JOEL: She’s a very ambitious person.
PROFESSOR: Is there anything wrong with that?
PROFESSOR: What about her depiction of SLC as the land of Oz?
IRISH GIRL: I thought she romanticizes it, but in light of what she went through, being Hasidic, I could see why she was very excited to finally be on a college campus.
GIRL WITH THE RED LIPSTICK: She made us all look so wealthy.
PROFESSOR: Who knew Sarah Lawrence is such a haven for making it big? Who knew this is Oz!
ELOQUENT GIRL FROM CATHOLIC FAMILY: Her relationship with Polly at SLC made me think that this was a queer book…. That she will come out gay at the end. I was very surprised that it wasn’t where the story went.
SOMEONE: Well, maybe that’s for the next book.
And then without any bells, the roundtable was over, class dismissed.