Friday, March 23, 2012


Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, by Deborah Feldman

Little did I know that I was about to dive into a scandalous book! Feldman must have predicted the type of reaction she would receive when she published her memoir. The Hasidic community has mounted a campaign to discredit her.

Feldman was born into an extremely strict sect of Hasidic Judaism, the Satmar sect, founded on the belief that the Holocaust was God's punishment for the Jews because they had forsaken their strict religious laws. Her father was mentally disabled or retarded (hard to say, because he was never diagnosed for fear of affecting his marriageability), and her mother, who had traveled from England to marry her father sight unseen, escaped the sect when Feldman was a girl. Consequently, Feldman was sent to live with her grandparents, who she is fond of, but she never really felt truly loved and accepted. She constantly chafed against the extremely rigid rules, unfair treatment of women, and rejection of secularism.

Strongly discouraged from reading or speaking English, she delighted in discovering Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, and JK Rowling. Hasidic schools for girls emphasize religious instruction over academics, so she felt grossly inadequately educated. When she finally met a teacher who will challenge her (even though she also sounds bordering on verbally abusive!), she was thrilled.

When she was married off at 18 to a man chosen for her by her grandparents, her body completely shut down. After receiving messages all her life that her body was a den of iniquity and temptation to men, she could not have a healthy sexual relationship with her husband. After much therapy (and the entire community knowing intimate details of their sex life), they finally consummated their marriage. When her son Yitzak was born, she knew that she had to get out. She enrolled in a course for adult learners at Sarah Lawrence and her world cracked open.

I really enjoyed this book, and Feldman is an inspiration. I cannot imagine what it would feel like to be trapped in a religion that believes that you are dirty for half of the month...and that you cannot partake in the same religious studies and community as men. (I loved the movie "Yentl" for similar reasons.) Or one in which your worth is determined by the age at which you get married, who you marry, if you secretly attend the mikvah (women do not discuss the mikvah with their husbands), and whether you wear a wig instead of your natural hair.

As I mentioned, the Satmar and other ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects are waging war on this book and Feldman herself (this pro-Orthodox Facebook group has been urging people to write one-star reviews). Just look it up on amazon and you'll see what I mean. What is most fascinating about this campaign are the petty accusations they are leveling at her:
  • They claim she didn't accurately describe her mother's life and when she got divorced.
  • They point out the existence of Feldman's younger sister and claim the whole book is a lie because she left her out. (Feldman says she chose to leave her out because she is a minor.)
  • Clearly without reading the book, they say that she fabricated a story about a woman's murder (??) and that she said her mother abused her. There's nothing like this in the book.
  • Feldman attended a strict Satmar school, but they say that she didn't admit it was not her first school. This is not true. She did say that she moved to a new school, but she doesn't say a lot about her former school. How is this important??
  • Feldman tells a story about a Hasidic man who cuts off his son's penis after he saw him masturbating. She acknowledges that she doesn't know this for a fact, but it is what she hears (through her husband and his brother). The crime is not reported. This enrages the haters, because they say it's blood libel. Feldman admits that she was reporting the facts third hand. Still, it's concerning...that as well as another rumor she heard about a man who sexually abused minors, and the crime was covered up and not reported to the authorities!
  • Some Hasidic women say she doesn't portray the life of Hasids accurately...and "I'm a Chassidic woman who runs her business and employs 30 people" or they say that she is attacking a religion that treats women with respect. Hmm...
  • They claim that she has attacked her grandparents and has been ungrateful. (I did not see any of this. She writes fondly of her grandparents.)
  • They say that all of her problems were due to growing up in a dysfunctional family.
These are just a few of the examples I've seen as "evidence" that Feldman fabricated the whole book. As Jesse Kornbluth writes in The Huffington Post, the haters are completely missing the point of the book.
What's fascinating to me in all this is that the Satmars only want to engage on the smallest points:, like where Feldman went to school and the technicalities of her mother's divorce, I've received not a word of protest about the conclusion of my review, which was, I thought, the most damning:
The real issue is sex. Not the act, but what it signifies --- male control of women. That old story. We see it in far too many places; dehumanizing women is a key component of fundamentalist cults, from hardcore Muslims to certain Republicans.

Men who oppress women --- they say they love them, but it seems more like they fear and hate them --- haven't been taught that sex is our reward for making it through the day. Like their women, these men have been sold the idea that sex is just for procreation. No wonder they feel like they're the ones who are oppressed.

There are claims in this book that Hasids have disputed. I can't tell what's true. But I'm sure of one thing: Men who can't live equally with women aren't worth living with.

Why didn't the Satmars take me on about the blatant sexism that oppresses both women and men in their community? I can only conclude this: It's a problem for Deborah Feldman --- not for them.
Feldman also spoke of her disenchantment with the Satmars, not just for the way they treat women, but also the way they fight for power. Her grandfather told her that in Europe, no one would have dreamed of fighting to be called a rabbi. (They actually turned down the position because of their humility.) But Feldman's Satmar community was divided in half--each half supported one of the Satmar rebbe's sons for succession. And it was a bitter battle. When she first met her prospective husband, she's unsure of whether she can even consider the match because she's concerned his family supports the other son.

When it's discovered that the wigs worn by the Hasidic women have actually been made with human hair from India (from women who worship other gods), the rabbis claimed that it's the work of the devil, a punishment for the "promiscuity of their women." (Yes, it's all the women's fault. Always. See above...a religion that treats women with respect?)

 Feldman wrote of her harrowing and humiliating first exposure to the Mikvah, the ritual bath house every woman must visit (and be inspected) before her husband can touch her. For 14 days after her period, she had to touch herself with white cloths twice a day to make sure she was not bleeding, for fear of "contaminating" her holy husband. That's right, women are filthy dirty. She also had a very difficult time bonding with her family members and her son because of the rigid rules and her anxiety about breaking them. It was only when she finally left with her son that she was able to develop a close relationship with him.

I remember learning about the ultra-Orthodox morning prayer men say, "Thank God I was not born a woman." Well, it's easy to understand why Feldman left such a stifling, misogynistic community.

Although Feldman's memoir is not perfect (many characters and events seem to be given short shrift), it's her story...and it's told from her perspective. She writes about the things that mattered most to her. Her mother and father were not significant influences in her life, so they are largely absent. Now that she's left, she has a relationship with her mother. I found this book to be very inspirational, and one that I will hold in my heart for a long time.

Judaism, as with many religions, can be beautiful. But when religion is taken to its extreme (in Christianity, Islam, or Judaism), it perverts it to a love of the law over a love and compassion for others and for God.


  1. 'The Hasidic community has mounted a campaign to
    discredit her.'

    Where is the proof? all the resources who exposed the Deborah Feldman lies are from the NY Dailynews, NYpost, Former Satmar women(Who are NOT currently) but apparently you know something that everyone else does not know.

    I'm Sure you enjoyed all the Photos in the book of her Dad's family, yet let's see how fast you like if your Brother in-law posted your pictures in a book without your permission?! its DISGUSTING!

  2. My husband predicted that eventually this review would be discovered by people set on discrediting this book. And so it goes. All one has to do to find proof of the well-orchestrated campaign against this book is to read the extensive one-star reviews on Amazon ( and the Facebook group that encouraged the organized attacks on the book:

  3. Ms Feldman's book is suppose to be a glimpse into Hasidic life.It aint so and far from it.
    She probably tells her personal stories but not what the Satmar community is all about.She figured in order to make it an interesting read for the secular world she must exaggerate and lie.She is wrong and could of tell the truth but choose to lie instead.
    I can cite numerous lies she tells in the book and on interviews.
    Its mind boggling that Simon& Schuster will do anything for money

    Why would you say that its an orchestrated campaign? I am commenting all on my own which is my opinion.
    This is another anonymous comment

  4. The only lies I've seen that critics have put forward are so off the mark that they have no credibility. Do you deny that women are required to go to through the humiliating mikvah experience after their periods, before their husbands can even touch them? That they are separated in the synogogue and not allowed to participate fully in Hasidic life? That girls are discouraged from receiving advanced education in lieu of marrying early and procreating? That young Orthodox Jews are taught not to trust anyone outside of their community? That they are discouraged from reporting anything (such as a crime) that might not make the community look good? That women are forbidden from showing any skin for fear of tempting men? That the women who teach girls do not have college educations and much of their focus is on Jewish history and culture rather than standard educational curriculum (which would prepare them for jobs or college)? That the sole purpose for sexuality is procreation? That men are not thankful to be born women?

    Did you even read my review? I cite many of the "lies" I've read in reviews. I also give a link to a Facebook group that was encouraging Orthodox readers to write negative reviews (as seen on Amazon). Most of the naysayers have not even read the book!

    I also maintain that even if some of the things she writes about have been misconstrued or even exaggerated, the basic principles are sound and Satmar Hasidism shows blatant misogyny in countless ways. Women are not granted equal rights or freedoms in this religion. That's not a lie.

  5. Ms Feldman claims that Satmar is different then what Judaism was supposed to be.I will cite you some of her lies
    Any religious woman who follows the law of family purity does not feel dirty during her period that her husband doesn't touch her.They don't feel humiliated when they go to the mikvah.I don't know much about the Modern Orthodox community but i guarantee you that the women go to the mikvah.Point,its not a practice only by Hasiddic Jews its part of the religion.But she singled out one particular community

    She fabricated a murder story.When caught with this lie Simon&Schuster went into damage control explaining that she didn't mean this but meant that.
    She lies when she claims that children are taught not wear seat belts becuase g-d will protect them.
    She lies saying that girls graduate with a a 4th grade reading level.
    She lies claiming that the school she went to teaches mostly how to maintain a kosher kitchen,modesty,sewing.
    She lies when she says that after someone gets married the entire community knows exactly if the couple consummated because the community loves gossip.
    As i said its a good read for people who have no clue about hassidic Jews.Its a good read for people who want to have a good laugh.Its a good read for people who like to read horror stories.But its not a good read for people who like the truth.

  6. I do not think we are going to be able to agree here...but I will respond to a few of your comments.

    "Any religious woman who follows the law of family purity does not feel dirty during her period that her husband doesn't touch her.They don't feel humiliated when they go to the mikvah..."

    How can you speak for ALL Hasidic religious women? Just because you do not feel dirty does not mean that all women do not feel dirty. And just in the term "law of family purity," what that says to me is that women are unclean. How could some women, like Feldman, not feel humiliated and dirty when attending the mikvah, if they are told that they are unclean and impure?

    "But she singled out one particular community..."

    Well, she is not singling out a community. All she did was write about HER experience. She is not saying that all Satmar women have the same experience.

    "She fabricated a murder story.When caught with this lie Simon&Schuster went into damage control explaining that she didn't mean this but meant that."

    Have you read the book? Feldman did not fabricate a murder story. She was reporting what she heard, and she says in the book that she does not know for sure that this occurred...just what she heard and interpreted.

    "She lies when she claims that children are taught not wear seat belts becuase g-d will protect them."

    I do not remember reading this in the book...but again, she was speaking from HER experience. If she did say that, it might have been just her own family.

    "She lies saying that girls graduate with a a 4th grade reading level."

    She does not say this specifically. She says that girls are not well equipped for employment or college, because most of their teachers are not college educated. She says that many Satmar girls do not reach academic proficiency beyond the 4th grade. That is not the same thing. To be honest, I have not been particularly impressed with the writing skills of most of the book's critics, leading me to question the academic rigor of the Orthodox schools. Your comments above are a good example of my point.

    "She lies claiming that the school she went to teaches mostly how to maintain a kosher kitchen,modesty,sewing."

    Do they not teach these things? What do they teach, then? Did you go to the same school she did? How do you know?

    "She lies when she says that after someone gets married the entire community knows exactly if the couple consummated because the community loves gossip."

    She did not say this about the community in general. She just said that about her own specific experience with her husband, who shared the information with his parents, who spread it on.
    Although insular communities do thrive on gossip...

    "Its a good read for people who want to have a good laugh.Its a good read for people who like to read horror stories.But its not a good read for people who like the truth."

    I did not laugh at this book. I felt greatly troubled for the women (and some men) who are trapped in such an insular, restricting society and who are unable to express themselves freely. Feldman wrote HER truth. She does not claim to represent all Satmar or all Orthodox Jews.

    Again, I'm convinced that you have not read this book but have been told about her "lies" and how to respond accordingly.

  7. I am a Hasidic woman who has read the book. It wasn't as bad as her interviews, where she DID claim that her schoolmates graduated with a fourth grade level education. I know people who went to her school, including my mother. None of the people I know speak a broken English. (In her book, she says they do.) I found her writing style pretty engaging; I was able to identify with her in many ways.
    What turned me off was her absolute negativity, as well as her smugness and condescension toward everyone around her. She makes herself sound smarter than anyone in her surroundings, yet capitulates in the mikva when the lady requested something she knew was wrong. This made the experience humiliating for her. I have never had such an experience,nor have I ever felt humiliation in the mikva. I don't feel, nor am I treated, like I am the carrier of some dreaded disease. Instead, my husband and I connect on a spiritual and emotional level. And yes, we do discuss mikva night, and how much we both look forward to it. It is unfortunate that Deborah received the education about Niddah she did; the impurity does not stem from the fact that the woman is bleeding. Judaism has the highest regard for life, and therefore any loss of life, or potential for life leaves an impurity. Anyone in contact with a dead person is considered impure; we simply don't have the means to purify ourselves today. The menstrual cycle indicates a loss of the potential for life, and therefore a woman must purify herself. This is part of the woman's privilege of being the carrier of life, and is in no way shameful. The husband suffers from the separation as much as the wife does.
    And yes, while Feldman is relating only her story, she continuously seems to feel the need to speak for other people. When her husband says he is happy for her when she gets pregnant because he knows she hates going to the mikva, she says 'yeah, right, he just wants sex'. She keeps putting words into people's mouths. I'm sorry if I am not prepared to take her word for it. Her sweeping generalizations of what 'everyone knows' and 'everyone says' and 'everyone thinks' annoyed me as well; What gives her the right to speak for 'everyone'? Words such as 'some people', or even 'most people' would not be accusing an entire community of single-mindedness. They are all people, people we barely get a fleeting glimpse of. Her Aunt Chaya is permanently stamped with the 'controlling' label, even though the only example I saw of her controlling anyone was at Deborah's wedding, when she controlled Deborah's mother upon the bride's request.
    As for her sister being a minor, so is her son. Why is he not excluded from her memoir?

  8. Agreed, Satmar does not encourage their girls to seek higher education. However, they teach their girls to be excellent wives and mothers, and I don't understand why that is not considered a good thing in today's era, when the family unit seems to falling apart. Many of them own their own businesses (my mother does) or work from home, and most of them want to stay at home with their children. There is nothing shameful in that.
    As for women being forbidden to show any skin; I was taught, and after thinking it through from many angles I agreed, that we don't show off what we have because we believe we are too precious to serve as eye candy to just any guy. I don't want to be seen, not because I am ashamed of my body, but because just as I would not wave around my wads of cash in public, I do not feel the need to flaunt what I have. Nor do I want to. Furthermore, I feel more confident that people will accept me for who I truly am if they are not blinded by what I look like. My body is precious, therefore I keep it private.
    If the sole purpose of sexuality is for procreation, why are we allowed to have sex while we are pregnant, or on birth control? Isn't that a contradiction?
    As for the blessing men recite, we women get our own blessing-we are blessed to have been created according to G-d's will. Because He created us to be more spiritually inclined than the men, and therefore more attuned to His will. That's not misogynistic, it's the beginning of the feminists' movement.
    Oh, and the reason mentioning the other school would have been important is that A)the other school is way more liberal than Satmar, her family would not send her there if they were as fanatic as she claims they are. B)Apparently she was expelled for 'educating' the other children about sex. Which completely contradicts her assertion that she knew nothing about sex until she was about to get married.
    The fact that someone is an author does not make his or her word the absolute truth.

  9. Thanks, Utterly Purple--it is so refreshing to hear someone's perspective who has obviously read the book. I respect your opinions and your feelings that Feldman tries to speak for the whole community. I can understand how you would feel about Feldman's observations, since your own are so different.

    I also appreciate the fact that you view orthodox Judaism as respectful to women. Many women in conservative religious communities feel that way. As for myself, I have a very difficult time agreeing with that, but I respect your opinion.

    I have no idea why she didn't talk about her I wrote above, "Although Feldman's memoir is not perfect (many characters and events seem to be given short shrift), it's her story...and it's told from her perspective. She writes about the things that mattered most to her."

    Her memoir is far from perfect (and I agree that her word is not the absolute truth), but I still respect her courage in leaving the Satmars, because that must have required a lot of courage to leave the only community she knew.

    1. I agree with you there. I just wish she would have waited a few years to write the book. Perhaps she felt that writing it now would convey her emotions better, however she may have had a different perspective had she waited until her obvious anger and frustration toward her community had abated. I think the story could have been better developed and perhaps told from a more mature viewpoint, she could have actually made a difference. I am the first person to admit that my community, like all communities, is far from perfect. Right now, she is putting people on the defensive; they will not listen to anyone who has anything constructive to say since they feel that people are out to get them. In my opinion, Deborah's voice is causing others who can actually accomplish good for the community to go unheard.

  10. I will admit that I simply am not sure as to whether I should believe anything at all she says in this book ever since I watched her interview on The View. There, she spoke about the Leiby Kletzky story, where a young boy was brutally murdered by another supposedly Orthodox jew. She lied, stating he had trusted the murderer because hasidic Jews teach their children to trust other hasidic jews even more than they would a policeman. First of all, this was totally not my experience; second of all, Levi Aron-the murderer-does not look hasidic at all, and there were other hasidic jews on the street that Leiby Kletzky could have turned to. This may seem trivial to you, but to me, twisting someone else's tragedy to get your point across is sickening, and was an indication that Deborah was ready to say or do anything to sell her book.