“Unorthodox:” A Woman’s Journey from Repression to Freedom
By Sarah B. Weir
Growing up, Deborah Feldman had to wear skirts that covered her ankles and high-necked blouses made of woven fabric so they wouldn’t cling to her body. She wasn’t allowed to read books in English because her grandfather, with whom she lived, said they were written in an “impure language.” When she was twelve, she suffered a sexual assault, which she kept hidden because she had been taught that men’s lust was ungovernable. This was supposedly the reason her world was segregated by gender.
At 17, Feldman’s grandparents pushed her into an arranged marriage with a virtual stranger, but she had never even heard the word “sex” spoken or learned about the very basics of human reproduction. Once married, she was expected to shave her head and wear a wig—something she rebelled against after a year because she found it so depressing. Seven years later, despite the fact she knew she would be hated as a pariah, she abandoned her community and started life over.
You might be surprised that Feldman didn’t grow up in a far away country with repressive laws against women, but in an ultra-conservative Jewish enclave in New York City. “They’ve passed more laws from out of nowhere, limiting women—there’s a rule that women can’t be on the street after a certain hour,” Feldman told the New York Post describing the Hasidic Satmar community in which she was raised. “We all hear these stories about Muslim extremists; how is this any better? This is just another example of extreme fundamentalism.”
Feldman explained the roots of Satmar Hasidism to the Daily Mail. She describes a Jewish sect that has largely turned its back on the modern word, which she says is, “a reaction to the atrocities of Holocaust.” Most of the members are descendants of Holocaust survivors who fled from Hungary and Romania during the Second World War. She continues, “Hasidic Jews in America eagerly returned to a heritage that had been on the verge of disappearing, donning traditional dress and speaking only in Yiddish, as their ancestors had done.” The community emphasizes family life and reproduction in order to, as Feldman puts it, “replace the many who had perished and to swell their ranks once more. To this day, Hasidic communities continue to grow rapidly, in what is seen as the ultimate revenge against Hitler.”
Deborah chronicles her journey from her repressive childhood in undefined a tight-knit section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn to finding the courage as a young woman to leave it all behind in her upcoming memoir, “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.”
In her book, Feldman describes a community that had become so oppressive and insular that paradoxically, it put its children at risk. “There was this old man on my street who, every day on my way to school, would be sitting on this bench, and would call out to me and offer me candy,” Feldman told the Post. “I told my grandfather, and he said, ‘Well, he’s older than you, so you have to talk to him out of respect.’ The guy was, like, a pedophile,” Feldman continues. “And we were taught to respect him.” As a kid, she was told all outsiders hated her, and that if she spoke to anyone non-Hasidic, she “risked getting kidnapped and chopped to pieces.”
It was concern for her own young son that ultimately pushed her to escape. She writes about a “lackadaisical” attitude toward health and safety fueled by the idea that “God will protect you.” One night, speeding down the highway on thin tires she got into an accident and her car flipped three times. She says that no one ever made kids wear seat belts. She realized that her son would have been killed if he had been with her. She had been asking her husband to change the tires for months and when he met her at the hospital, she announced that she was leaving.
Feldman was enrolled part-time at Sarah Lawrence College and a classmate took her in. In fact, in one of her history classes, while studying the art of the memoir, a seed was planted that “one person can make history.” From that moment she thought, “I might be able to make a mark or have my voice heard.”
She says she is an outcast now and that her family sends her hate mail. “They want me to commit suicide,” she told the Post. Her husband has been pushed to the fringes of the group. Feldman says he’s less religious now and has trimmed his beard short and wears jeans. They share custody of their five-year-old son.
Although she made the break with her community two years ago, Feldman says she’s still “very careful” and hides her address. She calls her book a kind of insurance policy against being harmed by her relatives because “they are terrified of their having their actions become public.” Nevertheless, Feldman herself is moving toward forgiveness. In “Unorthodox,” she writes of her grandmother, “I’d like to hold her responsible for everything I went through…but I am too wise for that. I know the way of our world, and the way people get swept along in the powerful current of our age-old traditions.”