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Thursday, July 24, 2014

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Breaking away from the Satmar

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Deborah Feldman

Deborah Feldman, 25, considers herself a new and different person today, cut from the template of rebellion.

Born into a haredi family in Williamsburg, a Satmar enclave in Brooklyn, New York, she spurned her childhood values and beliefs and embraced modernity.

“I’m an outspoken woman with feminist and liberal politics,” she said in an interview to promote her memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, which was published last month by Simon & Schuster. “There is no room for me in a fundamentalist Jewish community. I rebelled so I could achieve authenticity and self-determination.”

Having jettisoned ultra-Orthodoxy for a secular lifestyle, Feldman knows very few people like herself. She not only tilted at windmills by breaking out of the Satmar cocoon, but had the audacity to go public about her spiritual journey.

Feldman was raised by strictly religious grandparents after her parents parted ways and her mother abandoned the community. She was never close to her mentally disabled father, who played a minimal role in her upbringing.

None too happy with her restrictive and cloistered existence, Feldman broadened her horizons with visits to a public library. Novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Anne of Green Gables touched a chord, refining her imagination and fostering a spirit of rebelliousness.

At 17, she found herself in an arranged marriage, wed to a man whom she barely knew. Dysfunctional on all levels, the marriage produced a son when she was 19, but broke up under the pressure of incompatibility.

Feeling trapped but not helpless, she summoned up the courage to break away from the Satmars. “I think I always knew I couldn’t make it work,” she said. “Mentally and emotionally, I was leaving the community from a young age.”

Feldman objected to every conceivable aspect of the Satmar regimen. “Gender roles. Restrictions in education. Racism. Homophobia. Anti-Zionism. And more.”

Asked what kind of a person she would have been had she stayed within the Satmar fold, she said, “I wouldn’t have been alive.”

She added, “I feel very liberated. I feel joyful and lucky.”

Not surprisingly, Feldman’s mother supported her decision to leave. When asked about her father’s attitude, she replied, “He has never been aware of any aspect of my development.”

Now a single mother, she lives in New York City with her six-year-old boy and attends Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.

She began thinking of writing a book about her experiences after enrolling at Sarah Lawrence College. “But it took a lot of convincing on the part of my professors and fellow students to get the courage to write it,” she noted.

Unorthodox has been praised by critics, with Publishers Weekly having described it as “engaging” and Library Journal having called it “quite absorbing.”

Much to Feldman’s satisfaction, her mother is a fan. “She has been incredibly supportive and helpful,” Feldman said.

As expected, she has been vilified in Satmar circles.

“Rage is an understatement. I believe the fury comes in part from the fact that I’m a woman. Speaking out is always forbidden, but from a woman it is considered unacceptable. Much of the hate is coming from men, some of whom even have pretended to be women.”

With the publication of Unorthodox, Feldman has completely angered and alienated all her Satmar friends and acquaintances. She sees no way back, saying it would impossible to maintain such bonds today.

Far from being intimidated by their ferocious response, Feldman is currently writing a sequel.

She looks forward to improving her skills as a writer and hopes to establish an organization that provides help and resources to women like herself.

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