Green: You grew up in a Satmar family and then left, but your novel focuses on the family of a woman who remains within the community. Why did you choose to tell her story?
I was happy to have escaped fundamentalism and I associated creative freedom with not having to think or write or feel the constraints of the world I came from. So I was surprised when a set of religious characters emerged from my pen, characters who wanted things quite different from what I wanted. I think this was prompted by the religious rhetoric that was finding its way into the American political discourse, and then the shock of 9/11 and suicide bombers who thought they were behaving according to their religion. I began to realize that the corner of fundamentalism that I knew from experience could be a foil for urgent issues.
Green: Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy may be extremist in many ways, but it's not thought of as a particularly violent society.
For a long time, I felt that one was obliged to remain silent about fundamentalist Jews, because of how vulnerable they had been during the Holocaust. But in Israel, and increasingly in the U.S., in towns where they are a majority, there is nothing immediately vulnerable or neighborly about Jewish fundamentalism. There has been physical violence against disobedient congregants. Forcible interference with personal freedom is violence. Language that demeans and dehumanizes is violence: Orthodox rabbinic language can be quite demeaning in its descriptions of non-Jews and Jews emancipated from rabbinic rule.
Green: Do you identify with Atara, the character who leaves?
Atara is, of course, a fictional character, but her choices are closest to mine.
Green: Why does the novel not follow Atara after her departure?
Most books set in fundamentalist environments follow protagonists who struggle to leave; I wanted to try to write about those who stay. A person who leaves is dead in the official narrative of those who stay. Of course, this doesn't erase Atara from the consciousness of the people who knew her. Perhaps I wanted the reader to experience Atara's absence − what it means for someone you care about to cease to exist, officially.
Green: One subject that comes up several times in the book is the escape of the Satmar Rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum, from Hungary in 1944, while most of his followers remained behind and perished in the Holocaust. Has this issue ever been discussed openly within Satmar?
I left many years ago and was ostracized for decades, so I can't say whether it was ever discussed, but in the last years of my mother's life, I did have access to Williamsburg and other ultra- Orthodox enclaves. This is what I know: Satmar celebrates the 21st of the month of Kislev, the date the Rebbe arrived in Switzerland on Rudolf Kastner's train. A dream is often mentioned, in which a member of Kastner's family was warned: Take Joel Teitelbaum on the train, or the venture will fail.
Green: When did you learn the historical details of his escape?
When I was growing up, people spoke of the Rebbe's great sacrifices for Torah while he was in the camps, and I thought that the Rebbe had been deported. I heard of Kastner's train years after I left. I found out that the Satmar Rebbe had not quite been deported, that he was in Bergen-Belsen as an exchange Jew, as were all the passengers on Kastner's train − they didn't have to do slave labor, they had enough food to survive − everyone on Kastner's train survived, newborn babies and the elderly.
When I learned that the Rebbe fled Szatmar in secret, without warning his congregation, I wanted to find out what he knew. He had taught his followers to wait patiently to be saved. I researched it; I spoke to a history professor who owed his life to Kastner's train, and it became clear that it was implausible that the Rebbe would not have known what was happening in the camps, given the Vrba-Wetzler Report [smuggled out of Auschwitz in April 1944, with details about the mass murder of Jews]. The point is not to judge an individual running for his life, but the Rebbe was not a mere individual and his idea of leadership can be scrutinized.
Green: What is that idea of leadership?
The idea of leadership, in Orthodox Judaism, doesn't seem to be one where the captain stays on a sinking ship, but rather one where the leader survives in order to reconcile God with his people. For the religious Jew, suffering is divine punishment. So keeping alive the Rebbe, God's spokesperson, can seem essential − to reconcile God with his people so he'll stop punishing them. If the Rebbe believed this, then it follows that his personal survival was essential. Many of his followers felt abandoned when the Rebbe fled the town of Szatmar. But it is possible that others accepted that his survival was more important than their own, accepted that they were martyred for the sake of Torah. Willingness to sacrifice is a founding myth of Judaism. In their prayers, religious Jews remind God of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, "In his merit, not ours..." A midrash says Abraham was so eager to prove his willingness that even after an angel said not to lay a hand on Isaac, Abraham still begged to be allowed to draw a drop of his blood.
Green: Will you tell me something about your life story?
I was raised in a city in eastern France in a Satmar family. My rebellion started when I was a young child. I had trouble accepting that Jews were different or better than others; it didn't make sense. I wanted another truth, and I found it in books. I started to sneak into libraries and to hide books under my mattress. It isn't that books made me want something else. It is because I wanted something else that I turned to books. I was hungry for communication with others, for more empathetic truths. Also, I grew up in a large family, so privacy was elusive, and books gave me a private world that permitted reflection.
Green: You arrived in the U.S. at 19, to meet someone in an arranged marriage, and then you took off. Did you know people there?
I was on my own, in a country I didn't know. It was traumatic and difficult. I wanted to return to France, but I couldn't go back to the city where my family lived because it would have been too difficult for them and for me. Also, at the time, you had to be 21 in France to have the rights of an adult, whereas in the States, you were of age at 18.
Green: Why did you study architecture?
I was homesick for France. History of architecture classes allowed me to look at slides of the cities I longed for, buildings and shapes and urban gestures that reminded me of home. Then I became interested in the subject. Solving problems in three dimensions was new to me. I worked for about two years in an architectural firm but there was little construction in the '80s. The rare commissions architects could land seemed to be houses, or additions to houses, for wealthy Americans. That didn't seem to justify my having left home. And, architecture is fundamentally constructive − harmony, balance, proportion − the grace of living. But so much of me was in distress. I needed a medium that would permit me to deal with "destructive" impulses.
Green: Your first novel was in French. Why?
French is my mother-tongue. Well, Yiddish was my very first language, but I was socialized in French and all of my secret reading was in French. There were lots of hesitations and false starts surrounding language and identity. ... Perhaps I wrote my first novel in French because a French editor, to whom a friend of mine had shown a screenplay I had written, told me that if I ever wrote a novel, he would look at it. And once I went back to French, things fell into place creatively. The language resonated with my inner life, echoed the books that had mattered to me. French had shaped my desire for freedom. I would start my days reading a French poem. ... I returned to France and tried to settle there. My first novel was published, it got good reviews, but I couldn't survive in France, couldn't make a living there. After a few years, I moved back.
Green: When did you realize that your calling was writing?
I don't know that I have a calling. I am disciplined about work. I like, I need, to shape things. Once I understood how much I admired novels, the layered, complex truths novels offer, I couldn't think of anything I'd rather do. The conflicting perspectives that a novel requires are precisely what fundamentalism forbids.
Green: Today, would you call yourself an identifying Jew?
Identity is a complex issue for me. Am I French? American? I would like to think that I could join a more universal ideal of humanity. I am interested in digging deep into the past, to understand, and something in my past is Jewish, but I would like to think that my work is in the service of a more universal future.
Hogarth: The novel is set in a Jewish fundamentalist community: the Satmar. The Satmar are famously insular. How were you able to write about their world in such detail?
I grew up in a Satmar family. I was ostracized for decades after I left, but in the last years of my mother’s life, I did have access to Williamsburg and other ultra-orthodox enclaves. Once I decided to write about that world, I did a lot of research because there were episodes about which I had no personal knowledge—for example, we were told that the Rebbe, the leader of the community, was rescued from the Holocaust by a miraculous dream. I had never heard of the Kasztner train. Also, girls in ultra-orthodox communities do not study the Talmud, so I needed to do quite a bit of research to write about male characters whose lives revolve around the Talmud. Since I left home before marriage, I didn’t know the laws of “family purity,” which are taught before one’s wedding.
Hogarth: You left that world behind as a teenager. Why return to it now as a writer?
I didn’t expect to return to it; it was a world I was happy to have escaped. But years later, during the Bush/Gore presidential campaign, I became troubled by the extent to which religious rhetoric was inflecting mainstream U.S. political discourse. Then came 9/11 when every one of the suicide bombers believed he was behaving according to his religion. Marginal theocracies suddenly became our primary adversaries, and our response took on the ancient rhetoric of righteous superiority. I realized that the corner of fundamentalism that I knew from experience could be a foil for urgent issues.
Hogarth: Did you consider writing a memoir instead of a novel?
I get asked that question a lot. The first agent I contacted said she would be interested in a memoir only. But a memoir would have meant speaking mainly about myself and I could see that the scream of the one who leaves doesn't say much about those who stay. I wanted to try to write about those who stay. A novel would permit me to imagine the inner lives of people who made choices that differed from mine; a novel would permit me to write about this unfashionable, but urgent, theme of belief.
Hogarth: You portray the novel's fundamentalist characters in a sympathetic light. Why?
When I viewed fundamentalists through the barriers they set for themselves, they remained stick figures—as dimensionless as the idea they have of people outside. But when I honored the medium of the novel, which requires that characters be considered in different lights and unexpected angles, they became real people, with desires and longings and despairs—they joined the human family. This openness to others is exactly what so many rabbinic laws try to prevent. So it wasn’t that I extended a special sympathy; I just transgressed the laws of separation.
Hogarth: As someone raised in a world that encourages conformity, was it a challenge to find your voice?
Voice is a challenge for everyone, not just artists. It may have been especially challenging for me as one raised in an environment where women are prohibited from speaking in public. It was also difficult because voice is tied to identity. After leaving and losing family, friends, community, even country—finding a voice was the alternative to surrendering. But it required reconstructing an identity. I found trailblazers. Very young, I had developed a passion for Beckett, who left home and Ireland and reconstructed, however tenuous, some sort of voice.
Hogarth: What are you hoping readers will take away from your book?
I am a bit cautious about particular certainties readers take away from books. Some of the books I like best simply widen for me the realm of uncertainty. When the writing is good, the aesthetic high combined with the deepened awareness that I know very little indeed, suffices. Other books give me insight into complicated issues and allow me to interact with people I might never meet otherwise. Perhaps the hope is that one’s work will deliver on a few of these gifts of literature.