After listening to Fresh Air’s interview with Deborah Feldman this week (aired March 15, 2021), the author of the acclaimed memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots (Simon & Shuster, 2012) that became the basis of the film by that name starring the award-winning Israeli actress Shira Haas, I was so intrigued by Feldman’s story that I found a longer interview she conducted with the Dutch-born writer Arnon Grunberg in 2017. I was captivated by both conversations, especially as we approach Pesach, our season celebrating the Exodus from Egypt, the redemption of the Jewish people, and our renewal as a community and as individuals.
Deborah (age 36) grew up in the extremist and reactionary Satmar Hasidic sect in Williamsburg, New York. The Satmar community was founded by Holocaust survivors raised to believe that Hitler’s extermination of the Jews was God’s punishment for European Jewish assimilation.
Deborah is bright and articulate, fluent in Yiddish (her first language), English (which she learned by reading English literature on her own and in college after leaving the Satmar community) and German (close to Yiddish that she learned in Berlin). She speaks the three languages without a discernible accent in any of them.
She discusses without restraint her disturbed childhood, her beloved Grandmother “Bubbie,” a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen who raised her and saved her from a mentally ill father and a mother who abandoned her, her failed arranged-marriage, the long process to escape with her son from the toxic reach of the Satmars that sought to destroy her and corrupt her son’s innocence, and her search for her identity as a German national living in her adopted city of Berlin.
Ironically, in Berlin she found the city welcoming to refugees, respectful of human rights, open about Germany’s culpability for the Shoah, and filled with bookstores. She loved books early on in her life and sneaked into libraries to read. Literature became the font of her inspiration towards self-determination.
Deborah met her ex-husband when she was 17 years old through a match-maker, saw him twice before her wedding, and married him seven months later. He was such a stranger that she didn’t remember his face until they met again at the chupah on her wedding night. During the seven interim months, she was trained to be a dutiful wife, learned the traditions required of Satmar women, and was taught that sex was a necessary religious duty to produce children and rebuild a devastated community. Her grandmother, quoting their rabbi, explained that women cut their hair the day after their weddings to demonstrate to God that they are stringently observant enough so the Almighty won’t punish the Jews again with another Holocaust.
When she escaped with her son to Berlin, the Satmar community prayed for her death and hoped to dance on her grave. They charged that she moved to Germany and became a Nazi to destroy what was left of the Jews.
Deborah now doesn’t want to be identified as a Jew, though she freely speaks about her origins, and considers herself a humanist. She explained that in order to live in a free society she needed to liberate herself from past trauma, “from the inner and outer limits of the program” with which she was raised, to identify as a human being and to empathize with every person regardless of background. A political and social leftist, she has little patience for identity politics that she believes damages society. She argued that people ought to emphasize our universal human identity first; everything else is second. Germany, she says, is the opposite of the melting pot — where everyone can be free to be uniquely themselves without social pressure, obligation, or restraints.
Deborah’s career as a young writer was meteoric. A literary agent read her blog after she left the Satmar community and approached her to publish her book Unorthodox. At the age of 23, she was a complete unknown but ended up in an interview with Barbara Walters on ABC’s The View.
Her second book is called Exodus: A Memoir which she published two years later. It focuses on her life after Satmar as a single mother, an independent woman, and a religious refugee.
It took courage to break from everyone and everything she knew in the Satmar community. She missed especially her grandmother, but senility was taking her Bubbie’s mind away so Deborah began mourning before her grandmother’s actual death.
Deborah’s story, similar she says to women who escape from other restricted oppressive and abusive religious communities, isn’t unique. She may be right, but hers is an extraordinary story nevertheless.
For the discussion with Arnon Grunberg see – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HbKvcTZqNA0