Deborah Feldman chronicles a life of strangling repression in a New York Orthodox Jewish household in her new book, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, out Feb. 14. Her book delves into her past struggles, including sexual assault, an arranged marriage and a divorce.
She described life in a Jewish sect that has turned its back on the modern world, as a reaction to the atrocities of Holocaust, to The New York Post. Most members are descendants of Holocaust survivors who fled to America during WWII. She said: 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 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.
Now 25-years-old, Feldman turned her back on the Satmars in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood just two years ago, emboldened by classes she took at Sarah Lawrence College where she read enlightening books like Pride and Prejudice and Little Women. The books opened her eyes to a world that could be.
Her mother had abandoned her and her father was mentally disabled, so she lived with her grandparents. She could only wear skirts that covered her ankles and high-necked blouses made of thick woven fabric so nothing would show her body. She could not read books in English because her grandfather claimed it was an impure language. F At 12-years-old, Feldman was sexually assaulted by a cousin, but she kept it a secret because she was made to feel as if it was something she had done wrong. It's obviously all your fault and not his, and you need to keep quiet about it, she told The New York Post.
As a young girl, she was ordered to obey and respect any and every adult in the community. Feldman said that this insular mindset paradoxically puts 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.
At 17-years-old, she Deborah Feldman was forced into an arranged marriage with a virtual stranger. At that time, she had never even heard the word sex, much less learned anything about it.
No one ever said the word 'sex,' or even 'vagina,' to me. We had no clue. We were like, 'It'll work out.' It never worked out, she said. There is an actual rule that you learn before you get married that you are never supposed to look at genitalia. You can't look at yours, and you can't look at his. It's always dark. There's no hole in the sheet, but it's pitch dark and there's no looking and there's a lot of fumbling around, and you're wearing your nightgown rolled up to your waist.
After she was married, she was required to shave her head and wear wigs, which Feldman rebelled against because it depressed her.
I only shaved my head for a year. I just got tired of seeing my head like that in the mirror. It felt really depressing - like an embarrassing secret. I have a hard time cutting my hair now, because I remember how long it took to grow it out the first time, she told The Post.
Because of other particular rules in the Orthodox community, Feldman said that women are forced to feel like this animal due to their menstruation.
For two weeks every month, he can't touch you, she said. If you're sitting on a sofa, you have a divider between you. It makes you feel so gross. You feel like this animal in the room. If there's a question about your period, you take the underwear and put it in a zip-lock bag, and give it to your husband. He takes it to the synagogue and pushes it into this special window and the rabbi looks at it and pronounces it kosher or nonkosher. It's so disgusting.
Deborah Feldman has a child with her ex-husband. Her son is 3-years-old now and,when she left, she took him with her. Her husband currently lives on the fringe of the Satmar community, wearing a short beard and jeans, as there is no place for divorced individuals.
Her relatives reacted shockingly to the news of her publishing Unorthodox. Feldman started receiving hate mail.
My family started sending me hate mail, really bad. They want me to commit suicide. They've got my grave ready, she told The Post. One email said R U ready to CROKE [sic]. Another read, We are most definitely going to rejoice in your misery.
But I think the book is a protection in this situation, because [my relatives] are terrified of having their actions become public. So it's an insurance policy, in a way, she said. There's a reason why Hasidic people in New York get away with so much. There's this sort of tacit arrangement: They don't do anything the media can criticize.
Click here to pre-order Deborah Feldman's Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots from Amazon and read an excerpt.