Leaving Home: Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox

Feldman, Deborah. Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. Simon and Schuster, 2012.

The only child of a mother who left the community and of a mentally challenged father unable to care for her, Feldman was raised by her paternal grandparents: the grandmother the lone survivor of a family who had perished in the holocaust and the grandfather a respected student of the Torah. Feldman tells us that she “had to believe everything . . . [she] was taught, if only to survive” (47). Her world was the Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There, she went to school, but there was no expectation that she would go to college. Decisions were made for her, by her Aunt, by her grandparents. Her upbringing focussed on moulding her to be a good Hasidic woman, to face her ultimate destiny to be good Hasidic wife. However, while her upbringing may have given a good grounding on keeping a strictly kosher kitchen, it kept her completely ignorant of the design and workings of her own body. As she prepared for her marriage at seventeen, her “discovery” that her “body had been designed for sex” was “shocking,” and her “body rebelled against this change” (153).

Unorthodox recalls Feldman’s time in a community whose understanding of what it means to be Jewish is particular, exclusive, and for Feldman ultimately intensely restrictive. As a child, she escaped into books borrowed from the public library and hidden under her mattress. There at one time or another reposed both Anne of Green Gables and the stories of Sholem Aleichem, who despite his writing “in the holy language of Yiddish” (45), was “forbidden” because he was “an apikores, a so-called liberated Jew” (45). Later, forbidden literature would be replaced under the mattress by the jeans she wore to class at Sarah Lawrence. While her husband thought she was studying bookkeeping and marketing and things like that” (222-223), she was actually reading Wordsworth.

While I appreciated the personal tone of Feldman’s writing, I can’t decide exactly how I respond to her heavy reliance on the use of the present tense. On the one hand, the present makes things immediate; on the other, it seems a little contrived when describing the past. However, Feldman’s conversational style draws her close to her reader eliciting empathy. Her memoir is a very moving book especially in the way it reveals the tensions Feldman experiences between her love for her grandparents and her discomfort with her situation; with her respect for her heritage and her need to be free of the Satmar way of upholding tradition.

Unorthodox offers a window into a world of which most of us will never be a part, which at times may well seem incomprehensible. The book offers a glimpse into a community whose practices for those of us who live outside that community may well also raise many questions about how we define and understand individual freedom.





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Life in a Setting Sun: Peter Godwin’s Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa

Godwin, Peter. Mukiwa. A White Boy in Africa. 1996. HarperPerennial, 1997.

Just after I started work for a large firm of London solicitors in the summer of 1969, a frisson of excitement rippled through the office because one of the typists was emigrating to Rhodesia. From the mail girl to the senior partner, we were all intrigued about how she was going to manage it, given that Rhodesia was something of an international pariah and the subject of United Nations sanctions. The two women with whom I shared an office—the South African widow of a man from Essex and a young woman my own age whose family had left Northern Rhodesia on its independence as Zambia in 1964—were particularly interested. From 1964 to late 1965 when Southern Rhodesia’s leader Ian Smith unilaterally declared his country’s independence, Rhodesia and its leader were rarely absent from British news media. Opinion on Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) was not a little divided with Smith being seen as everything from a stalwart defender of imperial values, a misguided fool, a man out of touch with the mood of the times, a racist, or all of the foregoing and more. The United Nations imposed sanctions on Rhodesia, but how well those sanctions worked is still subject to debate. What they meant for my co-worker who desired to move there was that she had to arrange her travel as though she were actually going to South Africa. She was also going to a place at war.

This is the background against which Peter Godwin grew up, went to school, and was conscripted to serve as an officer in the Rhodesian police during the Bush War. After university, he practiced law for a short time in Harare realising that “in the new Zimbabwe, just as in the old Rhodesia, innocence was no guarantee of freedom” (338). Since he was still working on a doctoral thesis and needed to support himself, he became a stringer for several news media and it was ultimately his articles for The Sunday Times that led to his being “declared an enemy of the state, persona non gratain . . .[his] own home” (385).

Mukiwa recalls Godwin’s relationship with the land of his birth from his childhood to the time when he was able to return to Harare years after he fled on being forewarned of his incipient arrest. In the Preface, Godwin explains that the characters he recalls “are a mixture of actual people and composites.” Especially when covering the years of the war, he wants to shield those he writes about “from intrusion” (Preface).

I found Mukiwa a completely fascinating book. Some of this fascination is rooted in its focus on a time and events that I remember. However, I was an outsider. How different Godwin’s experience of the sixties and seventies is from my own. Ian Smith, UDI, and the war(s) in Rhodesia and then Zimbabwe were but disturbing headlines to me; they were the vivid backdrop to Godwin’s life. What is very clear in Mukiwa is Godwin’s love for the place that he realises too late is “the home . . .[he] never knew . . . [he] had” (Preface) and the terrible divided loyalty experienced by those who have had to leave the places and people they love because it is no longer safe for them to remain.

Since Mukiwa,Godwin has written further about his family in Zimbabwe in When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, (2006), and in his 2011 book The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe the title of which tells us much of what we need to know about its contents. Today, Zimbabwe remains often in the news.

What Godwin’s work does is underscore how the political affects the personal. What is recorded in the newspaper headlines and what we see on BBC World News and CNN is not so removed from us. When I see reports from the streets of Harare or read a book like Mukiwa, I find myself remembering that young co-worker of mine who went off to independent Rhodesia almost fifty years ago. Did she stay? Where is she now? What were her motives then, and how does she feel about them now?





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Greetings to all who celebrate the Summer Solstice

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A Respectable Life? Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey: My Own Life

Scurr, Ruth. John Aubrey: My Own Life.Vintage, 2015.

You are probably aware of John Aubrey’s Brief Livesand of Anthony Powell’s John Aubrey and His Friends. Anyone reading about Restoration England is also fairly used to coming across references to Aubrey whose life spanned what for me is a particularly interesting period of English history: 1626-1697.

Born in the second year of the reign of Charles I and dying while William III was on the throne, Aubrey witnessed not only the major political shifts that ultimately led to a constitutional monarchy but also a period when natural philosophy was developing into what today we would call experimental science. A member of the Royal Society, Aubrey was a fascinated participant in that development, who wrote somewhat copiously on several topics, though little was published in his own life time. However, he is quite justifiably often thought of as one of Britain’s first antiquarians. Aubrey wanted to ensure that things weren’t lost, that the past was understood.

In this book, Ruth Scurr has collated material from many sources to “construct…” (12) a diary. She concludes the introductory passage to her work, titled“England’s Collector,” by asserting that her “aim has been to write a book in which he is still alive” (13). She is successful, and her work presents us with a sensitive, intelligent, thoughtful man with a gift of friendship. More than that, it also presents us with a view of life as lived in the late seventeenth century. One gleans information about how parcels and letters were delivered, for example, or how laundry was handled. What would Aubrey make of our overnight delivery services? His concerns about plagiarism strike a highly contemporary chord, as do his concerns about debt and the problems of civil litigation. Of great interest to me also were the early sections covering Aubrey’s life as a student at Oxford and shortly thereafter that give some insight into how people carried on during the days of the Commonwealth under Cromwell. I was also very interested in how Aubrey’s writings throw light on seventeenth century attitudes towards love and marriage. Aubrey never married. When he did consider marrying, it appears that his motives were possibly primarily financial. None of his pre-marital negotiations came to anything, and one resulted in some of the law suits that precipitated him into poverty. However, he was no celibate and suffered a venereal disease.

I would certainly recommend this work as a useful resource for anyone interested in the period. For the student, it includes a list of the people in Aubrey’s life, a chronology, detailed notes, and a very comprehensive bibliography. For the general reader, it provides a thought-provoking introduction to a time and a lively, intelligent man.

The photos are of Avebury Ring and Stonehenge. Aubrey is credited with being the first to understand the significance of Avebury and of realizing the antiquity of Stonehenge.

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Return to Dead End Streets. Pat Barker’s the Century’s Daughter

Barker, Pat. The Century’s Daughter. Virago, 1986.

Almost four years ago, I included a review of Pat Barker’s first novel Union Street in my post “Rambles in Dead End Streets.” Today, I’m considering her third novel. The copy I have from my local library is the original Virago edition with the title The Century’s Daughter. You may also find the work under its later title Liza’s England.

Set in a northern English town, the novel begins when Stephen a community social worker attempts to persuade Liza Wright “née Jarrett” (5) to move from the house where she has lived since 1922 to sheltered accommodation. Liza is the only remaining resident in the street, which is slated for demolition, and Stephen knows his task is almost impossible. Liza is adamant she will not move. What follows is a double narrative driven at first by Liza and Stephen’s conversations and then moving easily among Liza’s memories, her present, and Stephen’s own present. Liza tells the young man about being born at exactly the same moment as the twentieth century and so earning the name “The century’s daughter.” Much of the novel relates what brought Liza to be the lone hanger on in her street, but it also follows Stephen, separated from his roots by his education and by his, unstated to his parents, homosexuality.

As Liza and Stephen come to know and like each other, Barker draws a sensitive, empathic picture of English working-class life from the beginning of the twentieth century to the days of Thatcherism. Where there was once thriving industry, there is now unemployment. Stephen’s prime focus in his job is “to try to get things going for unemployed youngsters.” Those “things” do not include jobs, only “ways of passing the time” (38) for “Dole-queue wallahs built like their steel-making and ship-building fathers, resembling them in this, if in nothing else” (71).

The world into which Liza was born is totally devasted, laid waste around her, destroyed possibly more by the economic situation than it ever was by two world wars. What has been lost is not only the bricks and mortar of the old narrow terraces with their crowded houses, but the sense of neighbourhood or community that once made Liza’s neighbourhood a vibrant, connected place.

The jacket blurb of describes the characters in The Century’s Daughter as “people who have had short shrift both in literature and in life.” This description caught my attention. Barker’s novel goes some way towards addressing this neglect. Written without condescension, The Century’s Daughter provides an empathic appreciation of how one segment of society survived and adapted to the challenges of the twentieth century. Arguably, the situation in Britain has not improved much since 1986. The blast furnaces no longer roar to make steel; whole mining villages are gone; the world of work has shifted. Where once people milled steel, spun cotton, sewed clothing, built ships, the buildings stand empty or gentrified into luxury apartments. Un or under employment is the ongoing lot of many, not only in Britain. Many of Barker’s later books—I’m thinking here of The Regeneration Trilogy and of Life Class,Toby’s Room, and Noonday—are sequentially connected, and I am sorely tempted to wonder what she might envision if she were to address where Stephen’s life might be now: better or worse?  I shall not give in to that temptation. Rather, I shall use the thoughts elected by the novel to think a little about literature about people often given “short shrift” in life and in literature.

For the most part, English literary fiction has, indeed, tended not to valorise the lives of the poor. Even in novels that one might define as including social critique, the people who labour tend to appear as supporting characters. Think about Gaskell’s North and South, or Brontë’s Shirleyor Jane Eyre, for example. I might argue that on occasion Dickens and Hardy sometimes present a broader view. There was, of course, what one might call a surge of working-class “heroes” in the mid-fifties to mid-sixties, but then what? You might be interested in re/(?)reading Tim Lott’s article in The Guardianfrom February 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/feb/07/loneliness-working-class-writer-english-novelists.

Lott makes a distinction between English writers and others writing in English: Scots such as Ali Smith and Irvine Welsh, for example. He further distinguishes writers such as Zadie Smith, Monica Ali, and Hanif Kureishi as “post-colonial voices.” For me, his article raised a lot of questions about the definitions of Englishness, Britishness, and class. Just where today are the divides between the working and the middle and upper classes? Do we look at income, occupation, family background, location, ethnicity, or aesthetic values? Or at that great British divide: vowel sounds? Often what separates people is access to education and the effects of education. These questions obviously go beyond the scope of a short blog post; however, I would argue that the fact that reading Barker’s novel elicits these kinds of questions and set me looking for other commentary on working class literature further testifies to the strength of that novel









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Whither the Fruit of Her Hands? Marilyn Yalom’s A History of the Wife

Yalom, Marilyn. A History of the Wife. HarperCollins, 2001.

 Most of us are probably at least vaguely familiar with Proverbs 31 10-31 which defines the

“virtuous woman . . . her price is far above rubies. [pearls or coral in some translations]

11 The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.

12 She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.

13 She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.

14 She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her food from afar.

15 She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.

16 She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.

17 She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.

18 She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night.

19 She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.

20 She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.

21 She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet.

22 She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.

23 Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.

24 She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.

25 Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.

26 She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.

27 She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.

28 Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.

29 Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all.

30 Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.

31 Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.

This version comes from the King James version of the Christian bible, and I quote it at length because I believe it lies at the heart of the Judeo/Christian conception of what a wife is, and it echoed at the back of my mind while I was reading Marilyn Yalom’s A History of the Wife.

What I notice first about these verses is the virtuous woman is defined as a married woman who has a lot of work to do while her husband hangs about with “the elders of the land.” However, all glib cynicism aside, I also notice some other interesting things apart from the apparent understanding that female virtue is best expressed in marriage. Verse 31 commands, “Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.” The Christian Revised Version translates the first part of this passage as “Praise her for all she has accomplished,” while the Complete Jewish Bible says, “Give her a share in what she produces.” What an excellent illustration of how translation is also often interpretation. Read carefully, this passage from Proverbs may not be as irritating as it may appear. Look at the introduction to Chapter 31 of Proverbs: “The words of Lemuel, king of Massa, with which his mother admonished him.” (Jewish Study Bible. My emphasis). The New English and the Revised English Bibles say, “which his mother taught him”; the Complete Jewish Bible says “disciplined.” The description of the “virtuous woman” comes not from the mouth of a man but from a woman. Indeed, the commentary on this passage in the Jewish Study Bible suggests the virtues outlined in this passage “are essentially shared by the ideal man described elsewhere . . . . Contrary to a common notion of woman’s status in the ancient world, this woman has considerable independence in interacting with outsiders and conducting business, even in acquiring real estate. This allows her husband to spend his time sitting in the city gates, presumably conducting civic business and serving as a judge” (JSB, eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler. Jewish Publication Society-OUPress. 1999.) If we accept that the husband in this case is not just “hanging” around the gates with the elders gossiping and drinking coffee while his wife does all the work but is in fact busily involved in civic business, then what we have presented as an ideal marriage is a shared partnership: one in which both partners contribute to and share in the social and financial benefits of their union.

The key word here, though, is ideal. As Marilyn Yalom’s book shows, marriage has not always been an ideal situation for women, and the designation “wife” not always a happy one.

As her book’s title suggests, Yalom examines the history of our idea of the wife. The book’s Introduction asks, “Is the Wife an Endangered Species?” and her last chapter “Toward the New Wife, 1950-2000” looks at what has changed and is changing about our understanding of what a wife is. The woman who married and the girl who grew up in the fifties have seen an immense change in some respects in the social status of women and in the expectations women have for themselves. Even greater changes have occurred since Yalom published this book in 2001, the year that the Netherlands became the first country to legalize gay marriage. More and more cohabiting couples defer or do without formal, legal marriage. With all this change, what does it mean to be a wife?

Does being a wife convey status, and if so, what kind? Certainly, as recently as the early seventies, I remember someone saying to me, “Why are you taking a degree; you already have your MRS?” In other words, to be married was seen as more important and conveying more status than completing an education. While for some, the title wife was positive; for others, it was negative. How many women have been at social events and when asked what they did replied something along the lines of “I’m at home raising two children,” or “I’m just a housewife” and found that people have lost interest in talking to them, even, as a friend reported to me, actually walking away. Notice, too, the use of that diminishing word “just,” to suggest something of minimal value.

I expect, too, many of us remember Judy (now Brady) Syfers’ essay “I Want a Wife” originally published in the first issue of Msand much anthologised since. It struck a nerve. It still does. Even if some contemporary couples share all responsibilities equally, many do not, and study after study shows that domestic tasks still fall primarily to the woman in any heterosexual partnership even if both partners hold down full-time jobs. Just type the question “How much of the housework is done by the working woman?” into your favourite search engine and see what you will see.

So what did and does it mean to be a wife? My OED compact edition devotes three and half compacted columns to looking at the history of the word wife. Yalom devotes ten chapters and an introduction. She begins with the Ancient world, especially the Greeks and Romans, looks at Mediaeval Europe, considers the effect of Protestantism in both Europe and North America, and considers the effect of Eighteenth Century Republicanism on attitudes towards wives and marriage. She then looks at the Victorian period in two chapters: one looking at both Europe and America, and one focussing particularly on the American frontier. Another chapter addresses the situation in the latter years of the Nineteenth Century and is followed by a chapter devoted to “Sex, Contraception, and Abortion in the United States, 1840-1940.” The penultimate chapter deals with the effect particularly of the second world war on women and work, and then she ends, as I mentioned earlier, with her chapter covering the second half of the twentieth century.

I found the book thought provoking, sometimes consciousness raising in the sense we used the term in the late sixties and seventies, and occasionally surprising even disturbing, for example, her use of the word “squaw” (233), a term generally held to be derogatory, in her discussion of the experience of first nations women. Unsurprisingly, since Yalom is American, the latter part of her book focuses primarily on the situation in the United States. I would have liked a somewhat broader perspective. What do contemporary African, Asian, and South American women expect from and experience in marriage? However, I realise that such a task would be encyclopaedic. Certainly of interest but probably not within the scope of this kind of a historical survey are the situations of women such as those covered recently in Extreme Wives,a mini-series presented by Kate Humble for the BBC, released in November 2017, and shown on Knowledge here in BC not long ago.

Each woman who chooses a life partner is going to experience that relationship individually and personally. Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in communities accepting of diverse lifestyles are certainly offered more choices than were offered to our mothers and grandmothers. At times, it may well seem that marriage and the whole idea of being a wife has been utterly transformed, and that transformation has been sudden. Yalom thinks otherwise. She sees a gradual evolution, arguing “that the transformation of wifehood in the past fifty years is, in many ways, the distillation of changes that have been going on for a long time—changes that have not been uniform across nations, religions, races, ethnic groups, and social classes yet tend to cluster around certain common issues” (xiii).

In clear prose, uncluttered by social science jargon, A History of the Wife offers an informative and thought-provoking overview of not those “common issues” and of the past that gave birth to them.

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Beyond Mourning: Helen Humphreys’ Coventry

Humphreys, Helen. Coventry. HarperCollins, 2008.

If you read the brief history of Coventry Cathedral on the Cathedral’s own website, http://www.coventrycathedral.org.uk/wpsite/our-history/  you may gain some idea of what Coventry cathedral stands for. To my parents’ generation of English people, rebuilding of Coventry after the massive destruction of the city and the cathedral became an act of faith in themselves and in their country. One of the most moving episodes of the war for my mother was the night a great glow appeared in the sky to the east of where she lived in the middle of the Worcestershire countryside. The next day the family realised that it had been watching Coventry, just under fifty miles away, burn. My first visit to Coventry was the year the new cathedral was consecrated, 1962. To a girl living in a city whose downtown was still mainly Georgian interspersed with the odd Tudor black and white and whose suburbs remained primarily Victorian, Coventry’s city centre and the cathedral itself were almost violently new. I remember experiencing what came to be called “the shock of the new,” a feeling experienced again when I visited Rotterdam four years later. My Dutch hosts told me laconically, “The old city was destroyed in the war.” Rotterdam remains one of the world’s great entrepots. Coventry in my youth was a place to go shopping, to the theatre, to visit the new cathedral built against the ruins of the old, a place that looked both back and forward into a world of promise and hope. Whether the hope of 1962 has actually been fulfilled is another question entirely.

I’m not sure whether Helen Humphreys’ novel Coventry is really about the City of Coventry or about how tragedy links people. In many ways, the story could just as easily have been set in Rotterdam, Hamburg, Dresden, or Guernica. The Englishness of the characters doesn’t really matter. What is important to the novel is Humphreys’ examination of how our pasts inform our presents, how people make connections, and about how individuals respond to disaster.

Published forty-six years after the opening of the new cathedral and nearly seventy years after the bombardment, the novel spans nearly fifty years: 1914-1962. Two women Harriet and Maeve, both lost newcomers to Coventry, meet just once at the beginning of the first world war. They promise to meet again, but they don’t; not until the night that Coventry is bombed. Harriet Marsh a war widow from the first war is fire watching with a young man, Jeremy, when the bombardment begins. Much of the action of this short novel takes place on the night of 14 -15 November 1940 as Harriet and Jeremy, wander the streets of Coventry trying to find their way to their homes, and Maeve searches for Jeremy, her son.

Meticulously crafted, elegiac and lyrical, heavily reliant upon the present tense, the novel confronts grief and loss, ponders the definitions of love, and underscores the power of art and writing to capture a moment. Most of all, however, it speaks of the resilience inherent in the human heart and reminds us, “Every act is an act of mourning,  . . . Every moment is about leaving the previous moment behind” (174).







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