How I Left My Ultra-Orthodox, Ultra-Repressed Hasidic Community
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Today Deborah Feldman is a model of modern, independent young womanhood: the 25-year-old single mother of a 6-year-old boy, Yitzy, a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, and a new author, with one memoir, “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” just published and a second memoir and a novel on the way.
But as a child and teenager, she lived the kind of life that would not have been out of place for a girl born a century before. Williamsburg, Brooklyn at the turn of the millennium was, for some, the epicenter of the post-punk revival, artists lofts, angular haircuts and hipster culture. But Williamsburg is also the long-time home of the Satmar community, a sect of Hasidic Jews that formed two large settlements in Brooklyn and upstate New York shortly after the end of World War II.
Feldman grew up in her grandparents’ brownstone — her father was mentally ill; her mother was estranged for reasons that don’t become clear until the end of her memoir — watched over by her grandmother, Bubby, a Holocaust survivor, and her frequently interfering aunt. In her home, there were no secular newspapers, no radios, no television. She saw her first forbidden movie at 17.
“If I had been living 200 years ago,” she says, “my story wouldn’t have been strange at all.” Books, too, were forbidden, but Feldman smuggled in 19th-century novels — “Pride and Prejudice,” “Jane Eyre,” “Little Women” — in which she saw a version of her own life. Like those heroines, Feldman grew up believing her life would be determined by her marriage plot. And at 17, her grandparents selected her husband, a young man she had never met, who was considered old at 23. They met for 30 minutes; eight months later they were married. It took them a year of humiliating tinkering — and very public interference — to figure out the mechanics of sex, but by 19, she had a son, the first of many children she was expected to bear over the course of her marriage.
But soon after her son was born, Feldman veered off the script. She secretly enrolled in the adult program at Sarah Lawrence College, telling her husband that she was taking a “business course” to help her get more copy-writing jobs within the Hasidic community. As her intellectual life burst open, and her marriage deteriorated, she eventually decided to leave her husband and her community. Inspired by a history class at her college told through first-person memoirs written by people who lived through each historical era, she began writing her own memoir the day after she left. She finished it six months later.
Feldman and I first met each other at the apartment of another writer friend, who introduced us knowing that we had both gone to college as single mothers with young children. We met again at a cafe on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where we discussed Jezebels, Judaism and the limits of multi-culturalism.
As you point out in your book, there is something very 19th-century about your story. Do you ever remember feeling optimistic about your future — like well, maybe this marriage will be the beginning of my adult life and everything will be settled?
The year before I got engaged, when I was 17, was the best year of my adolescence and childhood. I was working, suddenly I had all this independence, and I had made this very good friend. I thought for the first time, “Oh, I can make this work. I have great friendships. I feel fulfilled in my career.” My career such as it was — I was getting paid $128 a week to teach.