With a memoir about growing up in — and leaving — Satmar Williamsburg, 25-year-old Deborah Feldman is one tough Jewess.
Editor's Note: A follow-up story concerning allegations made in Deborah Feldman's "Unorthodox" appears here.
Like many other single Jewish women her age in Manhattan, Deborah Feldman hates dating.
“I won’t do it,” she says emphatically.
But unlike her peers, she has no interest in marriage. That’s because, at 25, she’s already been married (engaged at 17), divorced and has a 5-year-old son.
“I’m still celebrating the fact that I’m sleeping in my own bed,” she says.
Two years ago, Feldman packed her 3-year-old son and some belongings into a rented Kia, and drove away from the ultra-Orthodox Satmar community in which she’d grown up.
Her no-holds-barred memoir — “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots” — hits bookstores on Feb. 14. And it’s not exactly a Valentine to the insular world of shtreimels, sheitels and shtiebels.
Instead, the Simon and Schuster book, already one of Amazon’s top 100 best-sellers (it’s available for pre-order), describes an oppressive community in which secular education is minimal, outsiders are feared and disdained, English-language books are forbidden, mental illness is left untreated, abuse and other crimes go unreported and everyone is terrified of jeopardizing their — or a family member’s — chances of getting a shidduch, or wedding match.
“My entire extended family is now stained by the fact that they are related to someone who wrote a book,” Feldman tells The Jewish Week, in an interview over scones and eggs at a (non-kosher) Upper West Side restaurant. “They’re going to have a hard time making matches; they’re related to a pariah.”
Bright, articulate and opinionated — she describes herself as “strong-minded and demanding” — Feldman does not seem to mind her pariah status. If anything, she seems to have embraced it.
For an interview with the New York Post this week, she posed in a tight blue-sequined dress, ate crab cakes and talked at length about Satmar sex. At her meeting with The Jewish Week, she talks a mile a minute and wears a low-cut V-neck T-shirt and black leggings over her short and curvy figure.
Already Feldman’s in-your-face approach and open criticism is infuriating many ultra-Orthodox Jews; the New York Post piece has already generated hundreds of angry comments, many insisting that Feldman gets a lot of her facts wrong and unfairly smears the community.
That said, “Unorthodox” is actually a surprisingly moving, well-written and vivid coming-of-age tale about a restless girl who is raised in Williamsburg by her grandparents because her father is mentally disabled and her mother left the community, effectively abandoning her, when she was a baby. (After herself leaving the community, Feldman reconnected with her mother, who is now ardently atheist and a lesbian, living in Brooklyn.)
The young Deborah rebels by sneaking to the public library and hiding illicit books — like “Anne of Green Gables,” “Little Women” and even an English translation of the Talmud — under her mattress. Later, her hopes that adulthood and marriage will allow her more independence are thwarted as she finds herself unhappily wed (due to a condition she blames on her sexually repressed upbringing, she and her husband were unable to consummate their marriage for a year). After the birth of her son, she enrolls in college (getting a full scholarship), where she finds the inspiration and friends to help her plot an exit strategy.
The names of family members, ex-husband and in-laws have been changed to protect their privacy (although it’s questionable whether that’s actually possible in the tight-knit Satmar community), and Feldman insists she sensationalized nothing.
“If anything, I toned a lot of stuff down and left out a lot of the crazy stuff,” she says. “One reviewer accused me of wanting to settle scores, and that shocked me. If I’d wanted to, there was a lot I could’ve put in that I didn’t, because of my son.”
What about the shocking allegation, late in the book, that a Rockland County emergency ambulance service covered up a grisly murder in which a father cut off his son’s penis and slit the boy’s throat with a jigsaw?
“I’m not a liar and would never make something up for the sake of sensationalizing,” she says. “That was not the main story of the book. I didn’t need that story to sell the book. I put it in because I felt obligated.”
“I hope someone would read that, know what I’m talking about and bring justice — and if not justice, treatment for the father,” who is known to be mentally ill, she says. “I worry about his other children, and I worry about people thinking if he could get away with that, then they can get away with anything.”
While she has little positive to say about Satmar life, Feldman remains deeply connected to Judaism and to Jewish culture.
“Everyone always thinks, ‘Oh, you left Williamsburg, you must be an anti-Jew,’” she says. “But I’m not. I’m very Jewish. You can’t change that. I just want my kind of Judaism, that’s all.”
Her son Yitzy, who lives with her on the Upper East Side, is in kindergarten at Park East Day School, which describes itself as a “traditional Jewish day school.”
She keeps a kosher home, although more for her son’s benefit than her own. And on weekends when he is with her and not visiting his father, “we keep full Shabbat.”
“My son loves Judaism, and why shouldn’t he, because all the parts of Judaism he experiences are the best parts,” she says. “It’s like all my best memories growing up. As a kid I loved Purim and Chanukah. I didn’t love the lack of education and the restrictions. I know all the great recipes, all the songs, all the traditions and customs and can pass them on to him while at same time giving him a secular education.”
She has been catching up on the many aspects of Jewish culture beyond the boundaries of Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel. Like Israel, which she learned little about growing up, because the Satmars are anti-Zionist; she’s hoping to visit the Jewish state with her son this summer.
A voracious reader, she describes herself as a “big fan” of Israeli writers David Grossman and Etgar Keret. She’s also working her way through the pantheon of modern American Jewish writers, including Nathan Englander, who she “worships.”
“I feel like you can tell I’m a Jew by what I read,” she laughs.
Since Yiddish is her first language, she’s also dabbling in Yiddish literature — taboo in chasidic society because of its secularism — and even spent a few weeks last summer on a secular Yiddish farm in Maryland.
Her dream, she says, is not just to continue her writing career — a sequel memoir is already in the works — but to eventually open a shelter for young mothers leaving strict religious communities of all kinds, not just Jewish.
While another organizations, Footsteps, offers counseling and a social venue for Jews making the transition from ultra-Orthodoxy, Feldman says it “doesn’t offer a place to live, food, child care, divorce lawyers or help finding a job.”
“I had to do everything on my own, and I very much doubt most women are tough enough and crazy enough to do what I did. A lot of what’s keeping many women from leaving is that fear that they won’t have their basic needs met, and that’s especially true for women in abusive marriages.”
“My goal all along in leaving and becoming a spokesperson is that I can contribute by being a trailblazer and giving back to mothers,” she explains. “Single childless women leave, men leave, but mothers don’t leave because they think they have to abandon their children — and that’s not fair. We pushed them out; we should get to keep them!”
Just how did Feldman do it? She attributes her successful transition and custody victory to “a combination of having a really good lawyer, a really good strategy and a really good understanding of the intricate dynamics of my ex-husband’s family and friends.”
“Basically I watched other women make mistakes when it came to getting custody, and I just didn’t make those,” she explains, noting that many women leave without their children and then try to come back for them later, something that puts them in a “tough legal position.”
For a few months, Feldman and Yitzy “sort of hid out” with friends from Sarah Lawrence’s continuing education program.
Thinking the two were temporarily separated and that Feldman, who had just survived a serious car accident, was staying with her mother, who he’d never met, her then-husband didn’t suspect anything."
“For the first few weeks he was totally cool, he thought I was coming back,” she says. “Then after I found an apartment, we visited a marriage counselor, and I said this is not going to work out, let’s talk about custody.”
Interestingly, she says her ex has become less strictly religious since the divorce: he cut off his peyos, no longer goes to synagogue three times a day, works full time, and hangs out with other divorced Satmar men.
The community has more tolerance for men who stray from observance than it has for women, she says. “I tell people that if I’d been a man, I wouldn’t have left ... they let you get away with everything. I had an incentive, because I knew that it was all or nothing.”
Asked if she miss anything about chasidic life, Feldman pauses a moment.
“I miss the smell of cholent on Shabbos morning when you wake up,” she says. “I miss the sort of security and consistency that comes with having this gigantic family, but not enough to put up with the craziness.”
Knowing the anger and ill will the memoir would generate, did she ever consider not writing it? Or using a pseudonym, like Eshes Chayil, the anonymous author of “Hush,” a 2010 novel about sexual abuse in the ultra-Orthodox community? (Eshes Chayil later publicly identified herself as Judy Brown, the daughter of the publisher of Hamodia, an ultra-Orthodox newspaper.)
“I did consider using a pseudonym but my publisher advised against it,” Feldman says. “I never considered not writing my story, but I worked very hard to be as respectful as possible to my family in the book, especially to my grandmother.
Now in their late 80s, her grandparents became seriously ill shortly after Feldman’s wedding and have not been told about her book, she says.
“I still think if [my grandmother] read the book she’d like it and be proud, even if she wouldn’t admit it,” Feldman says.
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