Op-Ed: Unorthodox – Rejecting Hasidic Brooklyn & Reinventing Myself One Borough Away

February 27, 2012 at 4:00 am

Author: Deborah Feldman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: February 2012

When my mother chose to leave her arranged marriage and pursue her dreams of higher education, I lost her to the outside world. My family would not let her near me because they feared she would be a bad influence, and my father was severely developmentally delayed, so I was raised by my grandparents, both Holocaust survivors from Hungary who were deeply entrenched in Williamsburg’s Hasidic community.

I always felt out of place in a world that seemed to have no role for women other than mothers and homemakers. In the Satmar Hasidic sect, parents raise their children according to the strictest standard of observance of Jewish laws and customs. My aunts and uncles would berate and yell at their children for seemingly small infractions, and in school, teachers could be equally abusive.

In accordance with the rules of female modesty, women and girls wore long-sleeved shirts and calf-length skirts, regardless of the season. But that didn’t seem to impede the advances of the old man who offered me candy on my way to school every day, or my cousin, who sexually assaulted me when I was 12. Still, I believed I was at fault for these incidents, because I had been taught that it was a woman’s responsibility to be modest and not attract male attention.

A photo of Deborah Feldman ice skating around age 5. Women and girls in the Hasidic community are expected to dress modestly at all times and are forbidden to wear pants. Photo courtesy of Deborah Feldman.

As a child in this environment, I felt lonely and misunderstood, so I developed a secretive, guilty relationship with books. Each title was like an illicit friendship; I embraced them passionately in private but pretended ignorance in public. In my family, secular books were forbidden but my desire for them could never be suppressed. I lived in constant fear that my grandfather would discover my stash of English books and explode into a fit of rage. We were supposed to read only books in Hebrew or Yiddish.

As I grew older, my taste in books matured, and I began to compare my life to those of heroines like Elizabeth Bennett, the protagonist in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” and Jo March, from Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” I too felt controlled and manipulated by my society, and their small rebellions sowed the early seeds of my own discontent. After my arranged marriage at 17, I shaved my head and began to wear a wig as is the custom for married women. I had only met my husband once before our wedding day, married life proved to be more stifling than I had imagined.

As a result, my reading became even more voracious. I read about strong women in the real world who liberated themselves like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a women’s rights activist who escaped an arranged marriage in Somalia, and Somaly Mam, who was forced as a child to work in a Cambodian brothel and has since dedicated her life to saving other potential victims of a similar fate. I started to think escape was possible, because these women had done it in tougher circumstances.

Deborah Feldman signing the ketubah, a traditional Jewish marriage contract, at her wedding. Feldman said she was forced into an arranged marriage at age 17 with a man she said she saw only once before her wedding day. Photo courtesy of Deborah Feldman.

My son was born when I was nineteen years old, and holding him in my arms for the first time terrified me, because I could already see his miserable future in the community all mapped out. Suddenly I felt determined to give him a better life, and I impulsively enrolled in classes at Sarah Lawrence College. I told my husband I was studying business, but I was there to earn a liberal arts degree. Once I discovered the canon of feminist literature there was no turning back. I finally summoned the courage to abandon the insular world of the Hasidic community in 2009.

After my surreptitious escape in a rental car stuffed with garbage bags, I immediately thought about moving out of state, because it seemed obvious that New York was now ruined for me. There were Hasidic outposts everywhere; all over Kings, Rockland and Orange counties, and I was always afraid of being recognized by someone from my former life. I began to travel, looking for a place that could feel like home.

I pondered California, because it seemed like the place people reinvented themselves, and Texas, because on a visit there I had been struck by the awe-inspiring, endless sky, and New Orleans, for the way it seemed to drown my personal history in music. It seemed urgent that I consider a new place to set down roots. As long as I was hanging around New York, I was nothing but a ghost, having abandoned one life without knowing what it would be replaced with.

New York witnessed my lonely childhood, my desolate adolescence and my terrifying transformation as an adult. And yet I had begun to realize that the city was not the scarred and barren emotional landscape I had assumed it would be.

Well, friends told me, how do you expect to start over in the backyard of your past? And there it was, a reminder as I crossed the street and looked into a face that used to be mine, brushing past me. On 47th Street, a long black coat flared like the cape on the angel of death; instinctively I felt unsettled by it, like it was a warning.

Still, every time I got to another city it didn’t feel right. I looked at it and waited for it to look back at me with recognition. I felt that New York City, after all these years, looked at me with instant recognition. Those other places didn’t do that. Not even when I hung around for a while, kicking my feet in the dirt and raising little dust clouds, hoping the city would notice.

So I came back to New York, looking at it with new eyes. I saw that the people choking the sidewalks were all waiting for the city to look back at them, like I had waited in those other cities. All those hopeful transplants waiting for that click, the moment they know the city has accepted them, absorbed them into the landscape. They were waiting to be initiated.


In her first television interview, Deborah Feldman appears on “The View” to talk about her memoir.

Many stories come here to end, but how many stories are born here? New York witnessed my lonely childhood, my desolate adolescence and my terrifying transformation as an adult. And yet I had begun to realize that the city was not the scarred and barren emotional landscape I had assumed it would be. It did not so much bombard me with painful reminders as it enticed me with opportunities.

I had already been initiated, painfully, into the grand gray panorama. It was the complacent backdrop of my strange life; it refused to be shocked. So at least here, I did not have to feel like a freak.

Since leaving the Hasidic community, Feldman has adopted a more modern style of dress. She says she's still adjusting to life outside the community. Photo by Ben Lazar.

Everyone says that what’s craziest about the Hasidic community is its location. The Amish retreat to the countryside, polygamists build walled compounds in the desert — but the Hasids erect a spiritual fortress in New York City! I don’t think it’s crazy at all. What better city to accommodate oddities and curiosities than New York? It’s the one city that can’t be shocked. That’s the beauty of New York, and that’s why there’s room in it for me, and my past at the same time. We don’t crowd each other out.

I still struggle with life in the secular world but I feel exhilaration each time I make a decision, knowing that I didn’t always have this freedom. I love being in charge of myself and my life. I now live with my son on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; he attends school nearby and we visit the Met Museum and the Guggenheim often.

Now I can see that we’ve been comforted by this city; it has soothed both of us with its lullaby. New York has assured me that in its intricate grid I will always have a permanent spot, because this city is my true home and no other place will do. I’m not running anywhere. There’s plenty of room leftover for me, even with all those Hasids in Brooklyn.

Deborah Feldman was raised in the Hasidic community of Satmar in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and now lives in New York City with her son. “Unorthodox” is her first book.

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