Unapologetically ‘Unorthodox’

With a memoir about growing up in — and leaving — Satmar Williamsburg, 25-year-old Deborah Feldman is one tough Jewess.

02/09/12
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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.”

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.

 

Last Update:

09/09/2013 - 15:35

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1- I read your book in one sitting. Iallways wanted to know what these women think and feel. now I read about how one does.She is writing HOW she felt and went thro. Dont forget she came from a broken home and from a VERY narrow mind family. I won the the book thru goodreads in a lottry drawing. sent in my name and address and they picked me.THE book was good. After she left she relized she was brian washed her whole life. All the women/ girls/kids are. they dont know any better.when they enter the real world they are in shocked!! And as her being shomer shabbot if she says she is she is. who are you to say she is not. just because she does not keep jewishness like you or live ulter jewish like you does not mean she is not shomer shabbot. she left a community people like you because you are narrow mind people. I have lot more to say / write but this is it for now. WOULD LOVE TO MEET IN PERSON BECAUSE I FEEL HE LEFT OUT ALOT IN THE BOOK .

Her family is far from narrow minded and A LOT is two words.

If she is in a treif resturaunt eating crab cakes, that is an abandonment of Jewish beliefs. Any case you ever see of this kind of thing happening, it always seems to be in messed up families, where the victimized children hold it against Judaism, instead of realizing it was their own family that was screwed up, not Judaism. There are plenty of other people who have messed up families in the secular Jewish and non-Jewish worlds too.

Mordechai, maybe the question shouldn't be why is there "yet another Jew with an axe to grind", but WHY are there Jews with axes to grind? From what you're stating here there must be tons of books out there against the orthodox. I can't say I've seen that but assuming you're right, why do you suppose that is? I can venture a guess and say it's because of the attitude you yourself are displaying here. A woman writes a book about her experiences and immediately, in typical style, the knee-jerk reaction is to attack her. This is where orthodoxy becomes a cult. Instead of listening to what she has to say, she is condemned without a discussion. So much for the yeshiva way of learning.

through her comments, you can feel her regrets. she is one confused woman who needs lots of help. she is in pain and fighting her bipolar mind. also, she comes from a very unstable family. her book is only reliable enough to provide her with medication, not to draw any conclusions about the "facts" she presents

Yet another Jew with an axe to grind trying to make a buck off the back of the Orthodox community with a sensational "tell all" expose. It amazes me that people give a crap about what this miskeit has to say.

First of all she did abendon judaism. I know she comes from a very broken home and half the thinks she writes is just plain fantasy and lies she knows better than that. Why can't she be a modern jew and go her own way what choice is she giving her son nothing she is jus t a roting girl out for money.

Plain lies or fantasies? You may be right. Well, we can't judge. Everyone has the right to have an opinion. I am one of the people who want to commend her work. Whatever her purpose might be, I just want to wish her the best.

"Plain fantasy"? You speak as if you know her personally. I'm sure there are many publications, perhaps even the Jewish Week, that would be willing to hear your rebuttal to all her "lies". You ask why can't she be a modern Jew instead of giving her son nothing. I didn't realize the 2 were mutually exclusive. She is keeping a kosher home, keeping shabbos, teaching him about the holidays and sending him to a Jewish school. Perhaps the school isn't Jewish enough in your estimation, but I can't blame the woman for wanting her child to be part of the world as a Jew, not cut off from the world because of it.

Yea, just like I can't "prove" that jews don't kill christian babies and put their blood in the matza.

I didn't read the book, and I won't, but if somebody is saying that the orthodox community is protecting a murderer, a child murderer nontheless, and she never went to the police or done anything about it, that's nothing short of a blood libel.

And yea, she's "not" sensational...

Thanks Deborah for a wonderul book you are an inspiration to all women who are surpressed and want a way out of there situations. I am proud of you as a Jew, a woman and a mother. Protecting your son and giving him a normal life is a beautiful thing. Keep writing!

Very commendable. She didn't abandon Judaism, on the contrary, she's embraced it even more now that she is free to live her life on her terms. Too often, the religious community paints any detraction as either "anti-Semitism" from the outside or "self-hatred" from the inside. The reality is, as she points out, there is a cesspool under the surface of many of these communites. And this isn't a Jewish issue, it is an issue seen in any insulated community that thrives on fear of the outside.

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