Of the several sects of ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York City, the Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn has a reputation as the strictest and least penetrable. Members found themselves uncomfortably in the public eye last October, when the Parks Department removed Yiddish signs posted along Bedford Avenue that ordered women to step aside for men on the sidewalk. If that was a window into Satmar culture, 25-year-old author and former Satmar Deborah Feldman has just blown the door open. Her first book, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, tells the story of her upbringing, arranged marriage, divorce and departure from the Satmar community.
Raised by her grandparents after her mother left her mentally disabled father and the community, Feldman attended Sarah Lawrence College in secret and began blogging under the name Hasidic Feminist. It was her education, both institutional and individual, that aided her departure from the sect.
I recently caught up with Feldman between publicity appearances.
Rosie Goldensohn: How many people have left your community?
Deborah Feldman: The one I grew up in, I can count on my fingers. I don’t know any women.
I just received an email from a woman in Israel who is, as far as she knows, the only woman who’s left the Satmar community in Israel. She wrote me a letter in Yiddish, she can’t speak English and is just learning Hebrew. She’s got to have even more courage to leave because the Satmar community in Israel is a lot more extreme.
RG: In your book, you detail how you managed to secretly read English books as a kid even though they were prohibited. How did you start reading secular books?
DF: I would be in Borough Park taking that bus once a week and I remember waiting for the bus and looking across the street and seeing that teeny little Mapleton library branch. It was a little red brick building. Just on impulse I walked in and that’s sort of where it started. I went to the children’s section and read Roald Dahl’s Matilda. I started borrowing books and bringing them home when I finally got old enough to have a library card, and then I started working and buying books at Barnes & Noble.
RG: So when you were growing up, I’m curious about how you thought the world worked.
DF: I didn’t really know there was a world, and if there was, it was like another planet. I thought people looked at my costume and thought I was a freak and an Other. I even felt like an Other among most Jews, because even among most Jews, Satmar is like this freakish thing that we don’t know about or associate with, so I always felt like I had no place anywhere outside the Satmar community.
RG: You applied to Sarah Lawrence secretly, telling your husband you were taking business classes. Do other Satmar women go to college?
DF: They just don’t. They leave school at 15 or 16, they might have some kind of part-time job for a year and then they get married and have children.
I got my support network at Sarah Lawrence. They really saved my life.
I remember when I got there and took a political philosophy class and we started with feminist literature. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is validating things that I feel. Finally I understand all my thoughts and the context.’ I was getting this dose of feminism coming from a place that had never even allowed me to think that might exist.
So here I am feeling validated, overjoyed, amazingly passionate about this literature, and we’re moving on in the political philosophy class to the issue of justice and multiculturalism. And then we would read all these liberal philosophers who believed: leave cultures alone, let them do what they do.
And I remember sitting there and feeling this enormous conflict. I’ve not yet managed to have that conflict lift. I read and I think, ‘How can I reconcile my respect for difference, diversity, and my desire to advocate for women’s rights?’ So this is what I’ve been completely struggling with.
RG: Some people are upset about your book. How are you dealing with that?
DF: I’ve been getting all these emails from people who are not Orthodox, but are mad at me for embarrassing Judaism by speaking out about my past. We’re all supposed to support Jews, but if we’re gay or if we’re women or in any way oppressed, we should keep quiet about that.
What I think we have to do in response, just in the way I think Islam has attempted to do, is separate out fundamentalism. It’s not part of the religion or the culture. It’s just fundamentalism.