It Happened to Me: Fleeing Hasidism, and Living to Tell the Tale

An interview with Deborah Feldman, whose memoir "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots" shine a spotlight onto an insular community of the ultra-devout.

Feb 21, 2012 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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Deborah Feldman's memoir "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots," debuted at #5 on the bestseller list [I tried to buy it after editing this interview and it was sold out at two Barnes and Nobles! ] and shined a spotlight onto Satmar, an insular community of ultra-devout Hasidic Jews which has remained virtually undisturbed in Brooklyn for decades.

25-year-old Feldman (now divorced and Sarah Lawrence-educated) recalls Satmar as a bleak world of oppression, hypocrisy and life-threatening negligence, in which women receive little education beyond religious and domestic training, and are taught from an early age to fear all outsiders.

Already legions of pious detractors have rushed forward to silence her, claiming Feldman is mentally ill, that she is a liar, that the anti-Semitism she’s inciting could lead to another Holocaust -- “the standard party line,” observes the author, whenever anyone speaks out against the community. The threats of violence aren’t particularly surprising either.

A recent interview with the NY Post squeezed Feldman’s story for its juiciest details -- of which, to be fair, there are nearly too many to count, particularly regarding the humiliations Feldman suffered during sacred rites intended to purify her for (arranged) marriage at the age of 17, and Satmar’s design-by-committee approach to sex (under their elders’ tutelage, it took Feldman and her groom over a year to consummate their marriage). 

But "Unorthodox" is more than just a voyeuristic guilty pleasure, and Feldman's motives for sharing her story have little to do with retribution. By sharing her story, the author hopes to reach other women and children (and yes, even men) who yearn to plot their own escape.

Throughout your story, it’s fascinating to see how even the most private details of a Satmar resident’s life became public knowledge almost instantly, including the details about your wedding night.

There's this Jewish law against gossip, but I don't think anyone in my community loved anything more. It was the one thing that could entertain you or distract you, that wasn't a chore. Especially if you were a woman -- although the men love to gossip just as much, everyone does it all day long. It's the first thing you turn to when you're hanging out with your friends, because it's a safe topic, it's never about you -- you'll only be discussed when you're not there. If someone cheats on their wife or husband, everybody knows; there's just this tacit agreement that no one will call you out on it. Everything you do will eventually become public knowledge, which is why I think a lot of Hasidic people are really afraid to break the big rules: They know there's no way they can keep it a secret. Even if they go over the bridge and change their clothes and end up in a bar somewhere, someone is going to find out.

 I was actually in a bar a couple weeks ago on a Friday evening; it was late and I was playing scrabble with friends and listening to jazz, and on my way out I saw three Hasidic men in full regalia, waiting in line to get in. Which is normal -- they try to get in anywhere -- but it was Shabbat, and they weren't supposed to be away from home. They had obviously gone out of the community and gotten into a car and driven there, which is completely against the law. And these are people in the community who are supposed to be very holy and religious! Just as I walked past them, I said in Yiddish that I wished them a good Shabbas, and my friends walking behind me said that the look of panic on the men's faces was indescribable. I run into them everywhere and they look at me and think I'm safe -- that they don't know me -- and when I suddenly speak to them in Yiddish they go crazy wondering "Who are you, and who do you know that I know?"

Is the homosexuality among young Hasidic men that you mention in the book one of those open secrets, or is that tightly guarded?
 
Everybody knows, it's a big joke. "Oh Yeshiva: it's all men, Of course everyone's doing it there. It doesn't mean they're gay!" Everyone's just doing it. Women can't be gay, because for them that would just translate to “mentally ill.”

By that standard, aren’t the men all mentally ill too?

[Laughs] Oh, but men have ungovernable lust, right? If they can't aim it at women, they'll aim it at men. That doesn't make them gay!

Look, the truth is that A: There are a lot of absolutely 100% gay people in the community, and B: There are a lot of men who have a hard time making the transition from homosexual relationships to heterosexual relationships upon being married. Because they have no idea how to communicate with women, and they've never had any sort of meaningful interaction with women. They've barely seen photographs of women. They have no clue what they're supposed to be attracted to. And it's very difficult to suddenly switch over from having very passionate affairs with other men, because the friendships between men are so intimate, as a replacement for romantic friendships. And so, often they just keep having relationships with the men they met in Yeshiva.

The comments on the NY Post article were shocking in their uniformity, claiming your experience is atypical and blaming  your “dysfunctional” family. It reminded me of that excuse that gets trotted out during every US military scandal: “It was just a few bad apples.” Does it hurt to have the details of your own life story twisted around to discredit you?

This is the standard party line, it's what the community does with people who've left before. "You're mentally ill," or "You come from a dysfunctional family," because those are the only reasons you'd want to leave. The truth is, people have dysfunctional families all over the world, and typically you don't leave an entire community because of your family... because you can always just leave your family. And if you're mentally ill, I think that's more of a reason to stay, because it's scary for a mentally ill person to abandon the only support that they have. I think you have to be pretty sane to try and make it out there on your own.

I didn't think the book would get this much publicity, but I knew that I would get a lot of hate mail. When people do lash out at me, the funny thing that comes to mind is that five or six years ago, if someone had done what I'm doing now, I would have lashed out too. I would have felt such irrational anger if someone was out there making my life look that sad and pathetic, and making me feel that manipulated and powerless, I would be furious! And I'd do everything I could to justify my own life and why I was staying in it. So I really have nothing but compassion for these people, because I know what they're going through.

I regret that in the process of trying to raise awareness for how women and children are treated inside the community, I have to hurt some people. I'm sorry they're hurt, I really am. But on the other hand I'm getting mail from men and women who are desperate to get out, who are completely trapped, and I have so much empathy for them, and I'm not going to back down just because there are people who hate me. These people already have everyone standing up for them, but the people like me don't have anyone standing up for them.

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So many of the strict Hasidic laws seem to have been created in response to the horrors that Jewish people suffered during the Holocaust. Is all of this just the sort of thing that happens when an entire community suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

That's exactly how I see it. In fact I've used those exact words. I've come to the conclusion that when a community is founded on PTSD, you can pass that PTSD on to the next generation, and maybe even on to another -- but with every generation it's going to be diluted, and the motivation for keeping your community and traditions alive is going to fade. My view is that if this community does not adapt and reform, it will eventually collapse and lose its youngest generation. And the new generation now has smartphones and the Internet; when I was growing up we were really isolated, but there's no way to keep tabs on people right now, there's no way to keep them from accessing information like they used to. People are wising up.

As a Brooklynite, I know for a fact that there are many people living right alongside the Hasidic community who feel genuine concern for its residents, particularly its women. Is there anything we can possibly do to help?

I have a few recommendations. I'm always very concerned with this idea that costumes are designed to inspire fear in outsiders, to make you less likely to be willing to approach someone. Women who are dressed in Hasidic costume feel that it puts up a wall between themselves and outsiders. When I was a child I was afraid to approach an outsider because they would be afraid of my costume. And I think people were afraid of my costume, and they didn't think I had an actual mind of my own. So I'd like to really encourage pe ople to look past costumes. There are real people under those costumes, just like the people you'll meet in everyday life. And some of them are good, some are bad, some are confused, some are smart.

On the other hand, I obviously have all these goals now. I want to start a shelter for women who are leaving. What I’d like to do is reach a place where the community leaders would be willing to have an open and honest discussion about reform, and compromise. If we could just get them to allow education for women, to allow women to have careers, and give them a little more leeway, I think you could actually accomplish a lot for the women and still keep the integrity of the community intact. We could also prevent oppression and abuse. A little bit more transparency and a little bit more freedom for everyone involved.

Even if you look past the costume, it’s scary to consider that you might get someone in trouble by talking to them.

Exactly. Toward that end, I'd just say don't talk to anyone on their territory: always wait for them to come to yours. If you approach them on the street where they feel watched, they won't talk to you, but if you approach them elsewhere they will. And if you show understanding and compassion, they'll drop their guard. Remember, they've been taught from a very young age that all non-Jews hate Jews, even the ones who pretend not to.

Though most mean well, people bring all sorts of prejudices to the table when they read stories like yours. Do you think that some of the public’s curiosity in your memoir comes from a place of anti-Semitism?

A very small percentage of the responses have been people like that. I get some who are very rabidly anti-religion, who just want to confirm that all religion is evil; I get responses from people who are anti-Semitic, but those have been very few -- I've gotten maybe three, but those people are mostly illiterate.

Meanwhile from other communities, including Muslim communities, there's this desire to make me into some sort of poster person: "Look it's not just us, it's them too." I don't want to be used by anyone's agenda. I'm not here for that. I'm here because I'm a liberal, and while I love different cultures, I don't want women's rights thrown under the bus for the sake of multiculturalism. There's this huge conflict in liberal politics that no one is willing to address: How do we both tolerate culture and protect women and children? That’s what I'm here for: I'm here to start that discussion, and I'm here to help women who want help.

When people leave the Hasidic community, do they ever come back?

People don't necessarily go away and come back. We call them pendulums: They swing for a couple of years until they figure out where they want to be. A lot of people who leave an extreme background first go all the way to the other end and become atheists, and then tend to swing back to the middle.

Everyone expects me to come back. I've had letters from rabbis all over the world begging me to come to visit them, they'll show me “the beauty of Judaism.” But I already know the beauty of Judaism! And I love being Jewish… I discovered that when I left. The Jewish community is extremely diverse, and one Jew in one community has very little in common with one in another community, all the way across the world. We are not one ethnicity at all, we are six or seven different ethnicities. We are not one culture. We are not one race. And we are certainly not one nation. Those ideas were all mistaken ideas that I grew up embracing. So when I left, I thought, "Okay, I'm Jewish... but what does that even mean?" Well, primarily, being Jewish in New York now means I'm a nerd. [Laughs] It just means that I'm an intellectual and I love reading, and bagels and lox, and keeping certain Jewish traditions, and have a lot of Jewish friends.

Growing up you were taught you couldn't trust anyone outside the community. When you started reaching out to people, how did you learn to trust people, and how did you decide who to trust?

I still haven't, it's very hard. I have a sort of curse, I can read people very easily, and I can tell if there's any seed of  disingenuousness or malice. Just the smallest little germ, I can see it immediately, and I close myself off to that person. On the other hand, it allows me to see good people instantly. That's how I've made friends up till now, I get an instant read and if I love them, I love them right away.

I do have a hard time opening up completely. I have a lot of friends, but I don't like to date, even in a relationship I like to keep my guard up and keep our lives very separate. I think it's because I always felt that relationships were forced on me, and then I finally got out and I became the boss. I really don't want to give up being the boss of my life for a while.

With so many people making threats against you, are you concerned about what might happen to you or your son?

I'm certainly thinking about it. I've mentioned to everybody that I think it would be in every Jew's worst interest if myself or my son were to get hurt right now. You get what I'm saying? Part of the reason I decided to become a public person was that if I was going to do any outreach work to other women, I wanted the security of a public position.

Your son’s father is still part of the Hasidic community. How do you work out the custody arrangement?

It's been touch and go. We're always at the table trying to renegotiate. For the past three years we've been trying mediation... it's been really hard. I've had to compromise on a lot of things, but I'm willing to compromise in order for my son to have a relationship with his dad.

Who in the Satmar community do you think will read the book?

Everyone. Even the ones who hate me -- they can't wait to get their hands on it. It's insane, but it's true. I remember when Pearl Abraham, who had left, wrote a novel and everyone was reading it in secret. Because the truth is that a lot of people who are too afraid to stand up in public and say how they feel still have private feelings about this matter. They do want to hear what others have to say.