Thursday, June 28, 2012


I just finished reading the much-publicized memoir Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman. For those not in the know, the author of this book was raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the ultra-strict Hasidic community of Satmar. The Satmars are known for their various protests: anti-Internet (due to their belief that it corrupts the mind and allows too-easy access to forbidden texts, pictures, and ideas), anti-Israel (due to their belief that Jews should not have attempted to reclaim it themselves and should have waited for the messiah to come), and for their rejection of modernity (though the Satmars live predominantly in the English-speaking world, many are only fully conversant and literate in Yiddish).

Feldman writes that she attended a school where, true to form, most of the students barely learned to read English, that she was forbidden from visiting libraries except for specially approved "kosher" libraries with rabbinically censored books in Yiddish, entered into an arranged marriage at age 17 with someone she had only met once for 30 minutes before they became engaged, and gave birth at 19 before finally deciding to leave the community (and her marriage) at age 23. She now lives a secular life in NYC with her toddler son.

Remarkably, although this book has gotten a ton of publicity, most of the online reviews haven't been reviews per se but outraged claims that the author didn't tell the truth or at least didn't tell the whole truth. This website is entirely dedicated to exposing her apparent lies; the site Failed Messiah, which comments on issues in the Orthodox Jewish world, posted an article here about how she left out of the book the fact that she had a younger sister, and did actually know about sex a bit before the week of her wedding, and that her mother actually left the Hasidic community when she was a teenager and not a young child, and so on.

A few other Jewish blogs have also wondered out loud, or in cyberspace, why Feldman couldn't have remained religiously observant in a less restrictive, more modern style after she left the Satmar community.

All such criticisms are kind of beside the point because a) every memoir selectively leaves certain small things out for the sake of readability and narrative continuity and b) they never even try to claim that Feldman's central theme is flawed. Though Feldman never says it in so many words, every episode in the book essentially delivers the same message, namely: "I was treated like an object and I was valued only insofar as I was able to perform my function. Some people are happy in the Hasidic lifestyle, but those are the people who fit in, and if you fall a tiny bit outside the boundary of what the community considers acceptable, you will always, always suffer."

As for remaining religiously observant after leaving the community, well, why would she have done that? Would it have allowed her to maintain ties with her family? Of course not; she says in the book, quite clearly, that she has been taught since early childhood, and the Satmar community generally believes, that all other practices of Judaism are illegitimate. Feldman also says she thinks she is an atheist. So why anyone even thinks she should be bothered to keep kosher and so on, I have no idea.

Personally, I think this book is great and just flies by. I was fascinated and entertained the whole time, not least by Feldman's realization, at the end of the book once she has left the Satmar community, that she could be successful in the secular world, even enviably successful, precisely because she is different. The one question I had, to be honest, was how she learned such eloquent English... surely it couldn't be only from her mother (who was raised in a non-Hasidic family) and from secret visits to a children's library? And does she really not regret leaving the community, not even at all? Tell me more.


  1. I just finished reading the book as well. I loved it although there were loads of unanswered questions. I found that there was such a big build up of her leaving and then that happened in two pages. I long for more as well. Great entry.

    1. I've heard she plans to write a followup book about what happened after she left. She wrote this one almost immediately after/while leaving (in fact I think the book contract is what enabled her to leave in the first place)

    2. I was actually thinking she might see the whole experience a bit differently after she had been gone a little longer. In particular, I thought she might view certain aspects of the community a bit more sympathetically, particularly as she finds ways she doesn't fit in in the "normal" world either (because who does, completely?). I also thought she might be a little more sympathetic toward her Aunt Chaya, who probably didn't choose her role any more than Deborah chose hers, and actually did effectively protect her against her predatory cousin.

  2. "I was treated like an object and I was valued only insofar as I was able to perform my function. Some people are happy in the Hasidic lifestyle, but those are the people who fit in, and if you fall a tiny bit outside the boundary of what the community considers acceptable, you will always, always suffer." -- I think a lot of women, the world over, in all societies could say that. In fact, a lot of men, the world over, could say the same thing. ... As for not fitting in, and always suffering, that is true. But, the same can be said of conventional society. Perhaps not as much, but you will suffer in conventional society also if you don't fit in. As someone who is different, genetically different, and eccentric, I know.

    1. Yes, I think that's true. And I think it's something Deborah will probably realize as she spends more time in the secular world. However, the secular world does allow for outsiders to find their place in a way that more insular societies may not.

  3. 'The one question I had, to be honest, was how she learned such eloquent English... '

    Deborah Feldman has sister from the same Mother and the same father, that sister apparently chose to live with her mother, however according to court and school records Deborah Feldman chose to live with her dad side of the family/.

    Also Deborah Feldman former Neighbor Mrs Enegleman told the NY Daily News that Deborah Feldman OPENLY took her kids to the Library, so according to witness Deborah Feldman did not have to hide going to the Library as stated in the Book.

  4. Deborah Feldman was exposed as a liar and a gossip monger.She claims gossip is a plus in the Satmar community.The community gossiped about her not being able to consummate her marriage.If anyone believes,i got a bridge to sell.
    She writes in her fiction book how a kid upstate NY was cut off his penis by his father and died.The Jewish week which has no love for hassidic Jews uncovered the story as a lie and fabrication.Greedy corp Simon and Schuster sees the backlash made her come out with a statement explaining that she didn't say its true its only what she heard or thought.If this isn't pure gossip and fantasy i don't know what is.Can you all just imagine a person lying about a murder. Its just one example how she is not telling the truth.

  5. A Satmar Woman's Response To Deborah Feldman

    A Female Member of the Satmar Community in Williamsburg takes Deborah Feldman to task for her allegations in a recent newspaper interview…
    She now calls herself Deborah, but I remember her as Suri. We grew up together and attended the same school from fifth through twelfth grade. (She was actually my younger sister’s grade mate, a couple of years my junior.) She came to Satmar when Bais Yaakov of Vien, the most liberal of Williamsburg’s schools for girls, would no longer tolerate her behavioral issues.
    Her aunt (whom she refers to as Aunt Chaya in her book and whom she speaks of disparagingly) was the English principal of our school. A highly respected, refined and with-it woman, she vouched for her niece and took upon herself to give Suri the best possible school experience.
    Seems like Suri has repaid the kindness in spades. Based solely on her own dysfunctional upbringing (which has undoubtedly stoked her rebellious streak), she has shamelessly sunk so low as to trash an entire community. It boggles the mind… and sadly speaks for itself. What I can say with absolute certainty is that she did not undergo most of what she claims she did, and I would like to counter some of her blatant fabrications.
    To begin with, classy and intelligent people do not grant interviews to tabloid papers, unless they are willing to do whatever it takes to get publicity. When I’ll be in a forgiving mood, I’ll be dan l’kaf zchus (give her the benefit of the doubt) that maybe the paper deliberately twisted her words. But something tells me they were her own. After all, sensationalism sells.
    Deception: Suri lays it on thick when asked to describe a bathing suit worn in summer camp: “Picture this really shiny nylon fabric and thick, floppy, long sleeves, and pants covered with an extra layer of material to make it look like a skirt.” The real thing: At most, a “chassidish” bathing suit is a short-sleeve dress reaching mid-thigh, made of thin spandex fabric; quite comfortable, in fact, as well as modest.
    Fiction: The subject of (sex) relations was a total mystery to Suri and her husband, she alleges. A bright, open-minded and inquisitive girl who managed to hide books under her bed, Suri would have us believe that she skipped the library’s reading material on anatomy and sex? Even the most naïve of Satmar girls are pretty much aware of what awaits them on their wedding night, so spare us the dramatics Suri.


  6. Falsehood: As a longtime Williamsburg resident and a mother myself, I can attest that children transported in cars are properly buckled into their safety seats and that all mothers take their children for regular visits (and then some) to their pediatricians. If Suri was ever seated in the front of a car without a seatbelt and was never taken to a doctor (both of which she asserts), it could well have been the direct result of her dysfunctional home environment (what with a mentally unstable father and an absentee mother).
    Distortion: Contrary to her assertion that at seventeen she was deemed to be on the old end of marriageable age, seventeen is, in point of fact, regarded as being on the young end, the norm being eighteen to twenty-one.
    Invention 1: “Deborah” divulges that chassidish women are not allowed to eat out. Huh? I challenge anyone to walk down Lee Avenue in Williamsburg at any given time of day or night where eateries are packed with chassidish women. We may not be eating pork or crab cake sandwiches, but we are certainly enjoying the finest in heimishe food and delicacies. (You’ll find many of us eating out at kosher food establishments outside of Williamsburg as well.)
    Invention 2: Curfew for women? That’s news to me. In my Satmar Williamsburg world, my friends and I have frequently returned home after midnight (unescorted by our men), and we have yet to be stopped or told that this is inappropriate.


  7. A transcript of an ABC review of Deborah Feldman’s book has just diminished Suri’s credibility to zero in my book. Her claim of being “subtly molested during a cleansing bath – a mikvah – to ensure her purity” is utterly preposterous. No one gets into the mikvah water with a woman during her ritual cleansing. As for “the entire community” being in on her virginal status after failure to consummate her marriage, well, Suri, that sure is news to me. I had no idea!
    Newly married couples in communities such as ours are fortunate to have a support system if and when needed, but at the same time a married twosome can just as well opt to maintain their privacy. Presuming Deborah’s grandparents/in-laws displayed over-protectiveness (a weakness on the part of many parents of married children across the globe), it may have been a manifestation of their compassion for a motherless child.
    If Satmar Chassidism was torture for Suri, her amenable husband was the antidote — a great guy who also happened to be very tolerant of his wife’s need to be “different.” As a matter of fact, they relocated to a different neighborhood (a substantial distance from Williamsburg) not long after they married, where Suri would feel less “stifled.”
    She was thus given the opportunity to establish independence from her supposedly overbearing family and could have eased into a less stringent lifestyle, albeit still as a practicing orthodox Jew. But Suri chose rather to immerse herself in fantasies spun by the novels of which she couldn’t get enough. Her imagination was further fueled by the support of her new friends and college courses she was taking (such as writing).
    And in the process, she did more than unshackle herself from the “confines of Hasidic Satmar” — she shed her light of spirituality … in exchange for the darkness of materialism.
    Yes, Suri, we in the Satmar community take upon ourselves to live “beyond the letter of the law” — not in spite of the world we live in but because of the world we live in, so as to avoid the danger of getting “to the edge and jumping off” into an abyss. We love our beautiful way of life (contrary to your ludicrous insinuations) and are devastated by the distortions and web of falsehoods you have woven into your “memoir” — fundamentally an attack on all segments of Orthodox Jewry.
    It is hard for me to believe that this woman will get away with all the untruths and inconsistencies put out there. When called on his lies, James Frey, the author of “A Million Little Pieces”, claimed to have literary reasons for his fabrications. He defended “the right of memoirists to draw upon their memories, not simply upon documented facts,” but he eventually was made to own up to his untruthfulness in newer editions of his publication.
    I expect the same to happen to Deborah Feldman

    1. OK, enough of this, which is pretty much proving the entire point of my blog post. The fact that you personally, or whomever you are quoting, did not hear about Deborah's wedding night issues does not mean she did not feel as though the entire community knew about them. A thigh-length skirt as a "bathing suit" does not sound that different from what Deborah described - just because you don't dislike it as much as she does doesn't mean she's lying. She says in the book perfectly clearly that she heard a third-hand rumour, from her husband who heard it from his brother, about the man cutting off the boy's penis. She never says she knows for a fact that it's true or even indicates that it is likely to be true. Also, how should anyone know that her husband was a great guy, to her and as her husband? Deborah has a right to feel about him as she does. It's really not for anyone else to say or to know.

      In addition, Deborah does not say that Satmar way of life is bad for everyone - just that it was bad for her and for people who don't fit into the community's expectations. On the basis of what members of her community have to say about her, I would say that seems to be true.

    2. 'She says in the book perfectly clearly that she heard a third-hand rumour, from her husband who heard it from his brother,'

      However In a pre-publication interview with Julie Wiener in The Jewish Week, Feldman was questioned about the veracity of the story. Feldman not only insisted that she was not lying, but asserted that the father was known to be mentally ill and implied that he had escaped justice for his crime.
      “I worry about his other children,” Feldman told Wiener, “and I worry about people thinking if he could get away with that, then they can get away with anything.”
      This is not the first time Feldman has made this allegation. Indeed, in December of 2008 it appeared on her then anonymous blog, Hasidic-Feminist, where it was described as a “Class A secret.” In the blog post, Feldman recounted the story of a “thirteen year-old boy [who] had been castrated with a jig saw and bled to death.”

    3. What about the "talking fish" in New Square? Do you believe that story?