Escape from Hasidism

Deborah Feldman talks to Salon about her journey from hyper-repressed Jewish enclave to feminist single motherhood

Published March 3, 2012 5:01PM (EST)

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.

I felt full of promise. I felt like a ripe fruit, about to come off the tree. And then I plopped off the tree and it was like, gross. I was left to rot. But I definitely remember that feeling. It was such a brief moment in time, six to eight months, but it was the happiest time I remember. But after the wedding, everything really did change.

In your book, you talk about how even the husband’s sexual sins -- masturbation, visiting prostitutes -- come back on the wife, because women are perceived as having caused him to sin, even in situations when she seems to be hurt by his behavior. So is the idea here that women’s sexual emancipation is the worst possible outcome?

Absolutely. That is what they are trying to prevent. Every rule the Hasids come up with these days is about women. Men have way more freedom than they used to. It’s the women they are trying to crack down on. I lived in that community for two decades, and during that time I saw the advent of the Internet. There was a direct response. My skirts were six to 12 inches longer than my aunt’s skirts. That’s in one generation. The same idea is behind the shaved head: They thought, “We’ll get women to cover their hair, but whose to guarantee they won’t take off their coverings and show their hair? Oh, let’s have them shave their heads.” When my grandfather told my grandmother to shave her head, she thought it was ridiculous. She was horrified. And then she did it. And I did it, too.

There were all sorts of mini-scandals in your community while you lived there: debates over whether or not babies could be carried on the Shabbos; shaving heads; the use of human hair wigs.

You have to understand: We don’t have TV or any real forms of entertainment at all. So politics among the rabbis are entertainment, legal arguments are entertainment. Everyone is looking for something to get involved with, to get heated about, to talk about -- especially the young men, who are bored out of their minds and need to get rid of all of that testosterone. The same thing is happening in Israel right now. You see these photos of these riots. You see them throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails and destroying cars and you wonder, “Are these the religious, peaceful people I know?” But there’s all this pent-up energy that never gets allowed out, except for the purpose of religion. So then you understand where all this violence comes from.

As a teenager, you bought a secret copy of the Talmud, which women were forbidden to read, and hid it under your bed. When you read it, you found out some very salacious information about David and his concubines.

People never think of that as the most rebellious moment in my book, but it was. What it was is it wasn’t so much rebellion as heresy. In the Spanish Inquisition, people were burned for heresy. That’s how bad it is in Judaism as well. There’s a law that you can’t ever question David, or have bad thoughts about David, so what I was doing was very heretical. I remember just being so furious that he treated women like objects when he was supposed to be this holy person and therefore provided an excuse for every holy person or every self-appointed holy person to treat women as objects. I thought it was a terrible example for men. I thought, “How could God love someone like that?” If God loved someone like that, he hated me. And so I was, by extension, mad at God.

Obviously, the men in the community already knew this story about David. But the women did not.

No. They were never told. You know, there’s a prayer that women say every day -- “Thank you, God for making me as I am” -- But the men say, “Thank you, God for not making me a woman.” I don’t think Judaism started out as misogynist. I think people came to power who wanted to make it a misogynist tool for the oppression of women.

As in many repressive cultures, it seems that many times that while the men are the ones making the rules about women, the women in the community are the ones who enforce the rules upon one another.

Oh, all the time. You see this in other religious cultures as well. Women realize that they are so disempowered that they will do anything to get power, so they will buy into the patriarchy to get more power. So technically, they are a tool of the oppressors, but they are also being the oppressors. I saw so many women go down that path, because they were like, “What are our other options? I want some power, so if I become super-religious, the rabbis will trust me to wield my authority over other women.” It’s tough for all women. It’s like picking sides.

At one point in your book, your older cousin tries to assault you, before you even really know what sex it. Your aunt sympathized with you a bit. But under the sexual code, you would still be held responsible, more or less, for provoking his lust, right?

My aunt never addressed it. She never took the information or passed it on or did something with it. She never apologized to me. She just said, “Oh, boys, they are animals,” and left the table. There are women out there in the world who can tell you much worse stories about rape and attempted rape. Why I included it in the book wasn’t so much because it affected me so deeply but because the feelings I had about the story and the way my family responded affected me. It gave me this message, like, “Don’t ever talk about these things. They are always your fault. And you will never find support if something like this does happen.” That’s a frightening thing to feel.

 You went essentially straight from this 19th-century culture and were plunked down right in the middle of 21st-century feminism. You named your blog “Hasidic Feminist.” In a way, you are almost a time-traveler of sorts. What observations do you have on the state of contemporary feminism, having come from a place where it was largely unknown?

My first impression of feminist literature was, “Oh, my God. People are actually allowed to say this? Society thinks this is relevant and valid?” I felt so ebullient. I felt like I was just bubbling over with this sudden thrill of discovery. I wanted to tell everyone I knew. But of course, I couldn’t. In conversations with my Hasidic friends, I would bring up something I knew from a feminist text, without referencing it, because I couldn’t. And the people around me would just be like, “Oh, crazy women. You are such a weirdo.” They’d say the most derogatory remarks. The things men would say about women began to sting much more because I could see perfectly how each remark fit into each offending box. How was this exactly critical of women? How would feminists describe this sort  of sexism? I began to be very painfully aware of exactly how sexist my world was and what those feminist writers would say about the world I lived in. And everything just became untenable, suddenly. It no longer became, “Oh, I live in a different world.” No. It was a world I could no longer bear. Because those women that I respected and loved so much -- those women would never put up with it.

Feminism had been developing over a century or so essentially in a parallel universe right outside your community, within your same city. So unlike an earlier generation of women that had to wait decades for their community to catch up, you could just jump the track and arrive in a totally different time. If you once felt like you were a 19th-century heroine, it was like you could jump ahead ...

Skip right ahead into the '60s. I definitely had a moment in college where I was like my own Simone de Beauvoir. Even my classmates in college thought that I was just very, very  passionate. When I asked my classmates what they thought of me later, they were just like, “You were very outspoken. You had a lot to say.” And I did  have a lot to say, and I felt it was urgent and that it was life and death, and I came to the classroom every day feeling like the world was going to change. And these kids were just like, “Oh, I’m getting my degree. Whatever. I’ve seen all of this.”

I just sat there, alternating between fury and joy and frustration and shock and disbelief, all these emotions just playing across my face.

After you left, how did you feel about the culture you grew up in?

In one of my philosophy classes, towards the end, we talked about this idea of justice and multi-culturalism. The professor was very liberal and was a very strong proponent of multi-culturalism, as everyone at Sarah Lawrence was, because you know, we’re liberal, we’re tolerant. But that kind of came in as contrast to feminism for me: This doesn’t go together. And I remember sitting in this class, thinking, “I am a very liberal person, but this makes me mad.” It makes me mad that we are willing to tiptoe around individual cultures and allow women and children to be sacrificed in the name of culture. I remember sitting there feeling like something of a test case and feeling very angry because I was the guinea pig of this system. I was the one suffering because of this system. I spent those classes feeling bitter and angry and disillusioned because all this great philosophy that I loved and that had changed the world that I could now go into, I felt all the sudden betrayed.

You had a very beautiful passage in your book when you talk about what is done with problem children in the community. I’m curious how you would characterize the reaction to you, as a problem child.

Anyone who has a mental or physical illness, it is ignored, because it puts a stain on the entire family. I wasn’t necessarily a problem child myself. I was smart, capable, kept to myself. I didn’t necessarily make waves. It was my parents that were the problem. But the fact that I published this book, that people are writing about it, that means that my family is now known in their community as this family who has this black sheep in it that is now embarrassing the community. And that means no one wants to marry into this family anymore. So that means they can’t marry off their kids anymore. I ruined their lives in a sense. I didn’t do it deliberately. It’s just an unpreventable consequence of this happening.

So as you know, I was a single parent in college, too. And you were one for your last two years. What was it like to suddenly be free of your husband, your religion and let loose in the secular world?

Everyone thinks, “Oh, she must have been out clubbing and doing drugs.” I wasn’t. I was busy staying home and being a mom. I remember being by myself at the end of the day and just being so exhausted and feeling just so much stress and all these emotions at once. I would feel guilty because I was convinced I was a terrible mother. I felt self-doubt that I would ever make it, that my life would ever get better. I felt less than everyone else around me. Everyone else in college, I thought, was off to a bright future, but I was somehow doomed. I felt alone. I had a lot of negative emotions my first year or two. I didn’t think that I was good enough, or that I had done the right thing.

That’s so funny to me because it seems like an moment of liberation.

But it’s not that simple. It’s not overnight. It’s taking a huge risk. I knew when I left that the first year or two would be extremely difficult, and they were. Things gradually got better.  Now they continue to improve. I look back on that time as necessary. But it’s something I never want to relive or remember.

And actually, you don’t spend much space on that time in your book.

The book finishes the day I leave. But I’m working on another memoir right now that deals with that period. It’s not the fairy-tale ending, it’s not like you leave and everything is great. It’s not great. It’s a lot of culture shock. It’s a real uphill battle.

There probably aren’t many single mothers in the Hasidic community. But in the secular community, there are plenty of them, along with their own stigmas and stereotypes. Was it odd to come out into the secular world and be confronted with all these new stereotypes that didn’t really apply to your situation?

People always thought I was my son’s nanny. And if I said I was not, they thought I was white trash. I had a very hard time making friends. A lot of that was because I started incorporating other people’s images of myself. I started believing what they thought about me. And then when I got into environments with other moms, I’d think, “They all think I’m white trash. I’m not going to talk to any of them.” I recently made friends with a mom at my son’s school, right now. Just this week. And she said, “When you first showed up at the school, you wouldn’t talk to anybody. And I thought, 'Oh, she’s keeping to herself because she doesn’t want to get into her life story. And she just thinks once she gets to know someone, they’ll just have so many questions that she’s just going to avoid everything by not making friends.' ” She was partly right. But also I was just convinced that other people looked down at me. But then I ended up meeting some other moms who were just absolutely lovely.

I remember that feeling. The “tell me your story” part drives me nuts. There’s never any shortcut. Sometimes you want to bond with people and sometimes you just want to buy groceries, without having to explain how your kid became your kid.

And then you get introduced by friends as “the woman who did this thing.” Sometimes you want to just withdraw. That’s one of the reasons I am an extremely reserved person. I have an extremely limited social circle. I don’t go out a lot. I don’t make friends easily. Now that the book is out, I’m worried about being recognized. It’s one of the reasons I don’t date.

Well, at least now you can say, If you want to know the story, read the book. 

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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