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
Associate Editor
Photo Galleria: 

 

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 - 14:35

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

What makes the jewish week a Jewish paper? its a self hating jewish paper trying to assimilate ALL jews so its happy to interview and stick up for Sara Berkovits(deborah feldman) we all expect much more from a college graduate Not to look back on her Bad abusive life she should become a doctor or lawyer and not even look at the jews (if shes really that smart)
But why didnt the Jewish week ask her if she thinks so highly of her mother who was Not Satmar how come she came to USA to marry someone she didnt know? Eating treif, mechalel shabbat, making fun of mikvah, Saying not nice things about a father , isnt jewish of any sort so wy say shes not Satmar or Hasidic? Say I ran away from judiasim I gues U are still very stupid to think that taharas hamispacha and kashrus and shabbat is Satmar

Fortunately, her 15 minutes of fame may be down to the last 3 or so. It's not only the article in this paper that's caught her on her exaggerations. Simon & Schuster, in their haste to promote an anti-religious story, should end up with mud on their faces. Ms. Feldman has managed to slander virtually all Orthodox women in her book and subsequent interviews. There’s a lot about her to pity, and I hope she gets the counseling that a person who’s been raised in a dysfunctional family inevitably needs before she messes up her son as well. But most of her rants have more to do with that factor then with either Satmar or Jewish practices in general.

Deborah Feldman; you will regret this move- big time, once your son gets older. He will either become very religeous, fighting you for what you've done, or he will grow up to be irreligeous and fight you out of rebelious anger for not allowing him to grow up religeous. This is not a curse- it just happens to be the normal reaction of children with similar circumstances. It's also G-ds way of paying back mida-kineged-mida.

You have brought a lot of confussion amongst many Jews and non-Jews. They don't know who's lying and who's telling the truth. "Are the Jews really so bad?"- they ask. You have done what Korach has done- stirred confussion about the truth.

Truth is, we live a Torah life; a life with laws handed down by G-d Himself. These laws tell us how to live towarsd each other and towards Him. They are perfect laws. Although we may mistakes, we certainly work hard in trying to do all that we should. Everyone who gets a good look at us can see this is true. You too! You also know, the mistakes we make are nothing like the mistakes you have accused us of. We live on a much higher level than that. We are on a whole - a G-d fearing nation and will always remain G-d's chosen people!

The comment and spelling above is enough to make anyone with a thirst for wisdom and the strength to live the way they want to, do just that.
In this day and age I just can't imagine a smart woman living in fear, as her husbands property,worried about breaking rules/laws( perfect laws?) that are not excepting of others.

Deborah is to be pitied for the life she grew up in, but given her dysfunctional family background, it would have had the same outcome of she were Black, Asian, Latino, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu etc. Inotherwords, Judaism had nothing to do with it. The problem with her and her book is that she's dragging this stories all over the world with massive publicity from Simon & Schuster. Just watch The View to see Barbara Walters hanging on her very word as if it were an accurate portrayal. I could also write a moving story about myself, except that my story goes in the opposite direction - from a '60's hippie to an Orthodox wife, mother and professional. But will anyone other than Feldheim or Artscroll publish it? No, so like hundreds of other stories like mine, it will languish on Orthodox reader's bookshelves, and never be heard of by the secular world. And therein lies the problem. So much so that there is a movement underway to have The View host someone with a more balanced viewpoint, such as the woman who writes the blog Jew in the City. Personally, I think Ophrah's show about the Hassidic life is far more truthful then Ms. Feldman's book, which is already being refuted as a bunch of exaggerations, even on this website itself.

Julie Wiener-I was told by somebody who knows Deborah personally that she has a younger sister called Shira who the mother did take along when she left. Whether this is accurate information or not the fact is that her mother abandoned her. As I stated previously I cannot begin to imagine the pain of an abandoned child & would never judge her. I do feel however that she is directing her pain at the wrong people. She herself admits how good her grandmother was to her, yet has no qualms about hurting her whilst she has re-established a relationship with the mother who dumped her. Incredible!

Why are you exposing her sister to the whole world? She has enough problems to deal with as is.

Just thinking... Unhappy marriage.... Kids at a young age... Shaven head.... Maybe Britney Spears should also blame the Satmars...

if Deborah Feldman truly cared about her son's best interests, she wouldn't be airing her dirty laundry for publicity. That's the problem with hasidic rebels- they often go from the extreme of frumkeit to atheism. They don't see the middle ground of modern Orthodoxy. Enjoy your treyf food.

The following is a copy of an email that I sent to Deborah:
Although I have not yet read your book I have read many reviews about it. Having done so, my heart goes out to your having been abandoned by your mother. It must be torture to grow up kowing that your mother was not interested in you. She left the community taking along your little sister and showed no interest what-so-ever in you. She left you with a mentally unstable, incompetent father not knowing if even your basic needs would be taken care of. The pain that you must have felt then & must still feel must be unbearable. Having not walked in your shoes I do not feel that anyone has the right to judge you. However I am mystified. It would appear that you have no bad feelings towards the mother that dumped you, yet towards your elderly grandparents, who took yo in, nurtured you and gave you as much love as they were able are the people who you are venting at. They did the best they could in the very difficult circumstances and you appear to be confused as to where to direct your pain & anger. Once again, nobody is in a position to judge you & I cannot even begin to image the pain of abandonment. Having said that, your grandparents & extended amily tried their best to compensate for the void in your life. So that leaves me wondering why you have taken such a drastic measure to cause them so much angish & pain.

Anonymous: I don't think Deborah has a younger sister. If she does, she certainly hasn't written about it or told reporters about it. Please try not to complicate an already complicated story by adding false information . Thanks!

I can't believe book publishing companies, NYP, TheJewishWeek, give this girl the time of day, so she's a Very Important Person because she left Williamsburg.

I mean come on did she serve in the Armed forces, volunteer in Africa, donate millions to charity. Big deal YES a certain amount of people leave the Hasidic community every year but 10x that amount join.

Seriously would major publishing firms write about successful secular people whom return to their roots?

It probably isn't fair to put all Haredim/Hassidim in one basket, just as we shouldn't with Mormons, Mennonites, or any other religious group. On the other hand, communities that are voluntarily cloistered and closed to the outside do usually attract suspicion, whether or not it is justified. And attacking a whistleblower as a self-hater or whatever really doesn't help.

Debora is to be pitied but what of her community? They have an enormous track record of exemplary and benevolent behavior both on an individual level and as a community. The glaring deficiency so clearly recognized by those from the outside such as myself is their lack of P.R. and self awareness toward the broader community. In my opinion Satmar can ill afford to let this diatribe stand. Sadly past identical horrific sensational " MEIN KAMPH'S" have done there ugly deed in tainting this exemplary albeit ''human '' community.

I just wish to make a correction here. My organization, Yiddish Farm, was characterized in this article as "secular". While we do pride ourselves in creating an accepting environment for people representing the full spectrum of Jewish life, our farm and our programming have and will always be Shomer Shabbos, and our kitchen is a kosher one.

Thank you,

Yisroel Bass
Summer Program Coordinator, Yiddish Farm

let's see: she has an unhappy marriage, her husband has bipolar disease and is abusive, she was sexually assaulted on the street when she was 12 years old.
Somehow it is all the fault of judaism and the satmarer hassidim.

Hanna: I'm not sure where you got the idea that her ex-husband is bipolar and abusive or that  she was sexually assaulted on the street at age 12. Nowhere in her book or in any articles about her does such information appear. Do you know Deborah personally?

Debora, just wait patiently twenty years from now and your son will write a book about his confused mom and the beautiful jewish life she deliberately deprived him of.

// twenty years from now and your son will write a book about his confused mom and the beautiful jewish life she deliberately deprived him of.//

One man already wrote such a book. It is called The Color of Water. You should read it.

i live in Israel, am not Haredi, and live on a street where my apartment has a view of a Haredi neighborhood. I can see the Haredi families as they live thier family lives. I am always about the way the families are such a loving and friendly neighbors.
I watch the loving ways that the mothers handle their large families, and how respectful of the way they treat elderly people. The children aare always dressed modestly, but their is a certain dignity in their attire that is almost never disheveled when they play in the street and lots behind me. The street is a dead end street with very little traffic and I have never observed even a close encounter between a car and a child or adult. From observing the loving relationship the older children treat their younger siblings with love and a watchful eye.
whenever, I am carrying a large bag and any child. who is strong enough, always offer to carry it for me and always refuse to accept any gift that I might offer them.
When I observe their life I say to myself " How goodly are your dwellings, Oh Israel". Unfortunately, Ms. Feldman was not raised in such an environment and blames the community for the awful home situation she was raised in and that would have anyone become anti-social

i am Haredi and appreciate ur acknowledgement of the positive attributes of our community. any open minded, intelligent individual understands that each group has good and bad; stereotyping is a rather narrow minded approach. I too believe that placing blame on a community for the difficulties one experiences is a rather immature reaction. Hopefully, with maturity, Deborah will find peace within herself and stop the blaming game.

Her face reminds me of my sister's face.

Poor Debora looking for happiness in strange territory. Why don't you llook for happiness within yourself. Stop belitteling and lying about your people for you will always remain a jew and after you've tried out fulfilling your lust in every sense of the word you will come back home and admit happiness lies within yourself and the chasiddic community.

I feel sad for this young lady! I simply DONT believe her sensational story about the father cutting off son's penis etc. I will daven (pray) for her to be able to overcome her challenges.

YES! there are many things covered up and kept private in Chassidic community. When did the outside world EVER give us a fair shake?

I feel both sad and sorry for the misrable life Deborah has had. There are many orginizations that deal with family problems as her, its a shame she hasnt been helped and guided.

Having said that, I understand that Simon & Shuster is in the business of selling books that are profitable, and a book that exposes Chasidish life in the worst possible manner, would be a good seller by default. Its however pathetic that one single very troubled woman, would be able too put out a book full of lies by a reputable publisher.

Growing up and still living within a Chasidishe community, and also being exposed to secular world, I can say with confidence and pride; "we have a beautiful community". of course denying that we dont face the issues as any other community would be a phantasy, however as a whole, our kids and families enjoy an extremley loving and supporting community. Shame for Deborah for putting out al these lies, I assume the money derived from this scam, justifies it. Perhaps she can blame this behaviour as well on her upbringing.

I commend Julie Wiener for her coverage of Ms. Feldman's new book about her life. Unquestionably, everyone has the right to live their lives as they wish without coercion, and Ms. Feldman deserves the benefits of her courage, but the intrusions of one's community and the prurience-seeking media make "coming out" and "going public" doubly difficult. Look at some of the comments above.

In contrast to the article above. I was disturbed by the anonymous (unsigned) coverage of the same story, titled "Hasidic Hell" on the ABC News web site. Perhaps on the excuse of being under the "health" category, it focused on intimate details of Ms. Feldman's body, including "before" and "after" lifestyle snapshots, and the article writer's depictions of hasidic approaches to sexuality. The writer's knowledge of hasidic or Jewish life appeared to be very minimal, probably quickly gleaned only from Ms. Feldman's book: "Bubbi and Zeidi" appeared to be treated as proper names of Ms. Feldman's grandparents. The article (and the links to topics of similar ones on the site) seemed to be more intent on indicting hasidim and their way of life than on telling Ms. Feldman's own personal story. I hope that was not Ms. Feldman's own intent.

Didn't abandon Judaism? When she eats tref, dresses like a cocktail waitress and poses deliberately suggestive photos?

I don't mean to imply that a person who eats tref or dresses like a cocktail waitress isn't Jewish; anyone who grew up secular or semi-secular is in the category of "tinok shenishbah," blameless because s/he wasn't taught otherwise. But Ms. Friedman was taught otherwise, and she is intelligent enough to be able to distinguish between basic requirements of Jewish law and the fanatical extremes of the sect into which she was born. Rejecting the social construct of her native social group does not give her license to flout the word of G-d.

She is also intelligent enough to be able to see the inconsistency in eating tref--and not just "tref" as in "has no kosher supervision" but outright violation of basic Biblical law--while supposedly being Sabbath-observant?Some might accept Ms. Friedman's word about her Sabbath observance; however, once a formerly observant person voluntarily eats shellfish--something even many otherwise non-observant Jews accept as forbidden--we can be forgiven if we view her assertion that she's completely shomer Shabbos with a hefty scoop of skepticism.

I'm sorry for Ms. Friedman's painful past and admire her courage in leaving her dysfunctional society, but I deplore her present behavior.

hi i had heard her interview on wnyc she conerdict herself a few times she said she had so much knolodge but did not know how to have sex with a partner it is a shame how people could suuport such an author

I'm happy Deborah has written this book, however we all must keep in mind that there is a spectrum of experiences in the Hasidic community, as well as in all aspects of human life overall. As a secular, Jewish convert that has almost exclusively studied the Orthodox from a sociological/anthropological perspective, I will say that Deborah's experience is not atypical, but certainly not the norm. I am I denying the existence of sexual abuse in the Hasidim? No, but there are also similar cases among fringe Evangelical groups, the FLDS, Amish sects, etc. Look at Carolyn Jessop's Escape, for one example. The problem is not with the Hasidic community, it is with overall religious extremism, not with religious conservatism or fundamentalism (though there is a fine line.)

People also need to be mindful that writers also function as a commodity. Their material is constantly on the cutting board and I would not be surprised if some of Deborah's writings were condensed or enhanced to "keep the reader's interest." Does this invalidate Deborah's experience or mean her story is untrue? No! The public needs to be mindful of these things :)

wow! well written response! thought out, objective, intelligent! thanks!

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.