(Im)modest rebellion

In the week since her book was published, Deborah Feldman’s account of growing up and rejecting her hassidic roots is already causing a stir.

Deborah Feldman 521 (photo credit: Ben Lazar)
Deborah Feldman 521
(photo credit: Ben Lazar)
In this modern age, it is unusual for a personal memoir in book form to garner major media attention. But that is exactly what New York author Deborah Feldman has succeeded in doing.
Over the past two weeks, even before Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots was officially released, the story of how Feldman broke free from the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Satmar Hassidic community in Williamsburg has spawned a media frenzy.
Not only has a barrage of feature articles about the author appeared in the Jewish press, but the 25-year-old has been interviewed by The New York Post, CNN, CBS and even the UK’s Guardian and Daily Mail newspapers. Last week, after it was officially published, the book received rave reviews from just about every mainstream media outlet that gave it space, and the media attention – including online – does not look like it will abate anytime soon.
“I am shocked, absolutely flabbergasted by this response,” Feldman tells The Jerusalem Post in a telephone interview. “I did not expect it to be more than just another book on the shelf, but now people are turning to me as a role model, and I have had many people emailing me asking for help.”
While she admits that it might be the more salacious details – including the night she failed to consummate her arranged marriage, and the scurrilous actions of Satmar rabbis examining her underwear afterward – that have helped gain her story notoriety, the articulate young woman is also hopeful that her prose will create change, especially in her former community.
“I really hope that the book raises awareness about other young mothers from within the Satmar community that want to leave,” says the author, who left the community two years ago when her son was three years old.
Feldman, who is already working with several organizations to set up a shelter for young mothers in New York, explains that those “who want to leave the community need help getting divorced, finding housing and training for jobs. I want to help provide them with all those things.”
She is also hopeful that her criticism of the community – which she describes in her book as overly repressive of women – will “wake up” Satmar leaders and, at the very least, create dialogue with women to bring about a change.
“It is always possible with a little bit of hard work to reach out to the community’s leaders and encourage them to make some small reforms, provide education for women and even allow them to start a career if they want,” she says optimistically, adding, “It is time to start allowing more rights for Satmar women, because that will help keep them going.”
Despite the warm reception from the mainstream media for both herself and her book, the author has, of course, received criticism from within the hassidic world and from Jews in other communities.
“Some people have criticized me for making all Jews look bad,” she says. “They have told me that Jews should stand together for the sake of solidarity, but even though I believe that I do stand with Jews, I still do not think that we should allow extremists to get away with what they are doing any more.”
Responses from the Satmar community have been harsher, and some former friends and relatives featured in her book have even accused her of being mentally ill, but, she says, “I wonder how long they will be able to use this excuse.”
Feldman is no longer in touch with the grandparents who raised her and is divorced from her husband, even though they are still in contact because of their son.
Gaining custody in a society that is notorious for denying mothers who become secular access to their children, she explains, was a slow process.
“I actually plan on writing a second memoir for that reason; people really want to know how, especially now that I’m fighting to help other women gain custody of their children. But basically I got a really good lawyer, president of the Women’s Bar Association Patricia Grant, who came up with an amazing strategy. She suggested temporary separation, [that I] establish pattern of custody, move to a liberal Manhattan court district and establish myself as a public person with a book and platform. I believe that publicity is leverage.”
ALTHOUGH THE premise of Unorthodox is finding fault with her strictly observant upbringing, Feldman is quick to point out that she has not rejected her Jewish roots entirely.
“Being Jewish is not so much about believing in God, but it’s about where you come from and what your life is like,” she says, adding that she discovered Judaism only when she left the Satmar community.
“There is a difference between the hassidic sects, and the Satmar are fundamentalist Jews. They are the most extreme sect of hassidism, if not the most extreme religious sect [in the US].”
She goes on to say that in recent years the sect has become even bolder in its beliefs, mainly as an attempt to combat outside pressures that threaten to infiltrate or change its views.
“The sect is based in New York,” she explains. “As young hipsters are moving into their area and with the advances of the Internet and global technology, they are under pressure from the outside world, and in response they have cracked down even further.”
She recalls a recent incident in which signs in Yiddish suddenly appeared in the Satmar neighborhood requesting that women step off the sidewalk if they saw a man approaching. This type of behavior, she says, would not have happened a decade ago.
“They would never have had the need or the guts to ask women to step aside,” she contends, likening such moves to recent events in Beit Shemesh, where members of the haredi community protested the opening of a religious Zionist girl’s school by spitting at and attacking eight- and nineyear- old pupils.
“None of it is surprising to me,” she says, recounting an incident from her childhood involving an eruv, or specially erected perimeter allowing observant Jews to transfer items from one place to another on Shabbat. “Some people believed the eruv was not kosher, and I remember even back then men lining up in the streets and throwing stones at women who were pushing their strollers through the neighborhood.”
Asked what propelled her to leave the community, she says unequivocally that it came down to the books.
“Books were my heroes, and I was inspired by reading,” says the author, who found a way to study at New York’s Sarah Lawrence College, and the stories she read there reaffirmed her own beliefs about personal freedoms.
“I also wanted to be able to give people something that would last forever,” she says. “I know the publicity I am getting will not be forever, but I hope the change my story brings will be.”