An Unorthodox Rebellion: How Deborah Feldman left her community and found her voice

Written by Marissa Maier on . Posted in A Trip Through the Archives, Arts & Film, News Our Town Downtown, Our Town Downtown.


Courtesy of Ben Lazar

As 25-year-old Deborah Feldman slides into a booth at an Upper East Side restaurant, wearing a trendy leather jacket and knitted blue sweater, it is difficult to imagine the path she took to get to this exact point in her life, a journey she details in her debut memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. In the memoir, Feldman describes how she was raised mainly by her grandparents in the Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Feldman writes about sneaking off to a library as a girl to consume illicit books such as Roald Dahl’s Matilda. When she was 17, she was married to a man preselected by her family, with whom she had only spent 30 minutes before the ceremony. At 19, Feldman gave birth to a son. Hoping for a different life, she started secretly attending classes at Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied a variety of fields including literature and feminism, and started an anonymous blog detailing her experiences. Through her blog, Feldman was connected with a literary agent and then, while still attending Sarah Lawrence, she finished her memoir and left her community with her son. The book, however, has experienced a fair share of criticism and sparked several conversations about Feldman’s portrayal of her upbringing.

On Thursday, May 17, Feldman will present the work in the Lower East Side at the Tenement Museum, but we sat down with her beforehand to learn more about her work and the community she comes from.

You have said you were surprised by the reaction to—or success of—the book. What do you think people are responding to?

I am surprised the book did well, because with a book like this [the subject] is niche and you expect the book to do at best mid-list. And then something very weird happened. My publicist set me up [with an interview] with the New York Post and I met this woman, [the writer] Sara Stewart, who I loved and adored. We had this great lunch together and I gave a lot to the interview. … Then the article came out and it was nothing like what I thought this person would write … but the Post I guess edited it so that it sounded like these shallow sound bites … but then the Post piece got picked up by three newspapers. Then someone at The View saw it and called me and booked me for the show. But the Post is what got the [people from my community] angry.

Is that a publication that your community reads?

A younger Feldman. Courtesy of Simon and Schuster.

They read whatever is written about them. They are obsessed with how they are portrayed in the media. They want to control everything that is said about them.

They took issue with a lot of things in the [Post] interview that are the truth, but the Post misconstrued it—but it is not misconstrued to a point where you can completely deny it.

So they picked the article apart. From there, the more publicity I got, the more they wanted to knock me down, [but] had the Post not published that article, the dominoes would not have fallen into place.

But then I went on The View and I talked about marital purity, which is a big secret. Nobody talks about it in public ever. It is like we all agree that it is the one thing you cannot talk about because if the rest of the world knows we do this they will never look at us the same. … That’s why their excuse is “they can never understand because it’s so beautiful.” … It all boils down to [one] view and everything is built on that view that women are unpure because they menstruate.

[On The View] I was talking from my experiences and trying to be as simple and clear as possible because a lot of these things are really hard to explain. The funny thing is that I could have said way worse things about the laws of sex and marital purity … I didn’t bring up all the details. I just gave them the basics … and some people can argue that that is beautiful, but it wasn’t beautiful for me.

Feldman poses for her wedding. Courtesy of Simon and Schuster.

You have spoken about going through these marriage rituals and finding them shocking. You couldn’t believe that the women in your community were all doing this. Do women not speak about this?

No one ever talks about it in public. You never discuss it with anyone.

Even among only women?

Well … first of all, people are so bored and have so little to do besides work and take care of babies … so gossip is rolled into a million times its natural size. [Gossip] is the only thing that is safe. You never talk about you. You never confide, so you talk about someone else. It’s how people bond … the women will get together with their babies and have play dates … and gossip about their own families, about their friends, about their neighbors … when you have that kind of attitude obviously everything you do everyone will know.

There is this attitude—it’s almost like communism—of “don’t ever show people how you really feel because everyone will know.” There is no privacy and I think that is why women don’t communicate because they don’t trust each other.

What do they gossip about?

People gossip about everything: Is someone having trouble in his or her marriage? Is someone’s child ill? They will gossip about whatever they can find. They will gossip about someone wearing a brightly colored turban.

You have said that things are changing in the community that you come from, that the girls in your community no longer have to sneak away to the library to find out about a book like yours.

A few things happened that really changed the community drastically. One of those things was Williamsburg becoming cool and cool people moving in, which filled the neighborhood with bars. The rabbis were terrified of this because they knew that it was very tempting for a man to leave his family on a Friday night, walk a couple blocks and go to a bar.

The second thing that happened was the Internet. The Internet arrived and then there were cellphones and smartphones. What happened was there was no longer an effective way to build a wall around the community, because before if you wanted information, you had to go get it and you didn’t want to be seen getting it.

Courtesy of Simon and Schuster

You are working on a second book about people who leave religious groups both in America and abroad. What parallels do you find between your own story and theirs?

It’s funny that you say that, because when I wrote the proposal for my second book I didn’t think about it as anything more than a memoir, but when I wrote the memoir it was about other people’s stories, because I was meeting people and their stories where intersecting mine. When the publisher that I work with now, Penguin, read it, they said we see this as a much broader book than just a memoir. [They saw] this as a book about people who leave religion all over the world and what they have in common. Now this is a book about religious refugees.

 

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