Dear Deborah Feldman,

Unorthodox

Oy vey! That’s what I kept exclaiming as I read your moving memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Story of My Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. Thank you for having the guts and persistence to get it published. Remember how you had to hide books under your bed or in your underwear drawer because

Girl Reading Max Hendrick Sketch

Hasidic girls aren’t supposed to read anything but their prayer books? Well, Ms. Feldman, I bet many of those girls are now stashing copies of Unorthodox under their beds or burrowing them among their heavy high socks and panties. For some of these teens, unwitting hostages in a repressive and cloistered community, your memoir will be a validation of their own “unacceptable” perceptions. And for a few of these same girls it will be a road map out.

In Unorthodox, the devil really does show his medieval misogynistic face in the details. Who knew that according to the Talmud, Rachel, righteous wife of renowned Rabbi Akiva, stuck pins in her legs to prevent her skirt from billowing up and exposing those legs?

Marilyn Monroe-Skirt Billowing

Or that girls at your high school are treated to a daily “modesty lecture” where this masochistic act is cited as exemplary? Or that married women, have to prove they are no longer menstruating/“impure” by submitting numerous unstained white cloths to a rabbi for inspection? I found your detailed critique sadly instructive.

Your gift for description sneaks me into the closed world you fled. So I’m with you on that day you’re happy to be sent home from school to modify your dress: “The moment when the spring sunshine hits my face is like the taste of Zeidy’s Kiddush wine, my first breath of fresh air a long slow tingle down my throat.” And your depiction of your relationship with yourself and with God after your flight from Hasidism reads like poetry. “I have come home to myself, and God is no longer a prescription for paradise but an ally in my heart.”

Your family history needs no embellishment to be prime memoir material. Your lesbian mom left the Hasidic world without you, and your dad is developmentally disabled  and mentally ill. Being raised by your ideologue grandfather, your Holocaust-scarred grandmother, and your materialistic and controlling aunt was, at best, a poor fallback position. With no reading of books or newspapers, no TV, little contact with male age mates, and a lot of negative and erroneous information about your body, how were you supposed to be prepared to have sex let alone enjoy it? And those pre-marital sex ed sessions you endured were worse than useless. No wonder you didn’t know where your vagina was and, when your husband proved similarly clueless, no wonder there was literally no there there for either of you. Your frankly clinical account of your efforts to figure out your own body is chilling.

Hasidic Bride En Route to Wedding

In fact, a lot of what you say about life as a Williamsburg Satmar is disturbing. And seeing our stained Jewish linens billowing in the wind feeds my fear of anti-Semitism, an ongoing threat. A modern Reform Jewish feminist, I still feel guilty when writing Jewish bad guys and gals because I hear my mother’s whispered warnings sounding in my ears. Her whispers became shouts when I was writing The Bones and the Book because not all the Jews in that novel behave well. Some are downright criminal. With my dead mother kicking up such a ruckus in my head, it was very hard for me to implicate even those fictional characters, so I can only imagine how difficult it has been for you to expose the community where you grew up. But even my mother would acknowledge that, kept hidden, soiled laundry eventually reeks.

Bravo! You speak for other women rendered powerless in a community of damaged men who see women primarily as breeders and domestic servants. Inspired by you and other female Jewish authors, I’ll continue to mine our rich tradition and tell women’s versions of the stories I find there.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

6 Comments

Filed under Memoir, Uncategorized

6 responses to “Dear Deborah Feldman,

  1. Annette Hollander

    I immediately tried to order the audiobook from my county cooperative library system (which is huge), but they were all checked out! I’m now on the waiting list. People must be reading your blog…..

    • I wish, Annette! Unorthodox has been a best seller for a while now. I hope you get your audio book soon. I wonder if the author is reading her own work. Interesting . . . Let me know, please.

  2. Coach Mentor

    Your comments are disturbing your Marilyn Monroe picture is a very poor role model. Go out and find out the real truth on Chassidim. There is the other side of the story.

    P.S. Try writing about Moslems then you will really see which people are oppressed

    • Sorry you found my blog on Unorthodox and the photo of Marilyn Monroe disturbing. What disturbed you? What was your opinion of that book? I’ve been reading a lot about Hasidim lately and plan to blog soon about another book about them that I found inspiring. Maybe you will prefer that blog. What book about Muslims do you suggest I read? Thanks for you interest in my blog.

  3. A TRUE OUTLOOK ON BEING JEWISH AND IT’S MEANINGFUL WAY OF LIFE.
    Climbing Mt Everest

    (Life, for many different people, could be and should be an adventure, no matter where you start. Whether you’re lucky enough to be blessed into an understanding, structured and stable home, or G-d forbid, the opposite. Each person is born with their own personal voyage to retreat to, and it is their responsibility to get there, guided, and not PUSHED. cbg)

    There is a amazing Torahdikeh way to look at climbing a Mountain, especially Mt Everest, because it’s not only the largest mountain in the world, it is the most difficult, and there are so many things that one has to learn, from the people in their lives, before even attempting such a climb. Just as in life, one needs to have guidance and proper training to “climb” their own personal mountain.
    As I stand here at the on the cliffs of Mount Everest, with the world right in front of me, surrounded by clouds that block parts of my view, and a chilled wind blowing on my face, I try and think back to the beginning of this long journey that has finally brought me to this amazing point. I have not yet had the opportunity to reach the top of the summit, and breathe the thin air that separates the mountain top from the ground, down below. The trip, as you are aware of, came with much difficulty, and I am sad to say, there were many people, who started the long traitorous journey with me, who did not make it so far, but for whom I have such high hopes. If only they could see the beautiful breathtaking views from where I stand, and understand the excitement that is running through my veins, as I get closer to the top of the summit. What an amazing beginning it was reaching the base camp, the first of many hopeful accomplishments.
    As is it known, I cannot take credit for my destination on the Mountain alone, and am truly grateful for the Brochos that have come my way in regard to the amount of help that followed me, guided me and continued to, not only encourage me, but educate me throughout my journey. The Sherpas are nothing more than miracle workers, paving the way for a safe trip, over rock, ice, and in some unfortunate cases, reminding me and others that it’s not always a smart move to climb too fast, and warned us over and over again that it doesn’t pay to continue any higher unless you have the strength, physically and mentally.
    It’s amazing how many people come all prepared with the right tools, like what to wear, what rope to use, and even more crucial, how to tie the knots, and anchor yourself to the mountain. The most important part is the structure of the anchors, and how deep they are put in, because if the slightest slip happens, or a wind comes and pushes you, you can fall. The list to climb is endless, and if you are missing any “instruments”, it can be a matter of life or death. From the smallest things, such as what shoes to wear to having the correct amount of oxygen, it is crucial that they are not only in your backpack, but more importantly, taught how and what each individual item is for. You’re instructed months, if not years, in advance how to start training your body for the “beating” it can and will take, as the climbing becomes more strenuous.
    As with all journeys, instructors and their teams are there to make sure that YOUR safety comes first, and are honest with you, right from the start. If there is the slightest chance that either your demeanor, mentally and physically, has been compromised in any way, they are the ones who decide if you start, continue, or even when only a small climb away from reaching the top, can say, that’s it and have you turn around and go back down. You listen, if you’re smart, and need the brains to realize that they are the voice of reason, they see things that you can’t, from their angles, such as weather, and oncoming problems that can arise from up high. Even the smallest hint that your mind is not straight, because it is pertinent that your brain, because of the lack of oxygen, stays sharp and your instructor/s will give you a series of tests, via radio, to make sure you are still “in there”. This is the only way to give you the assurance that your journey is going well and it is not far from your destination, your goal and your dream, of climbing the highest mountain.
    Unfortunately, as with many situations, there is never a sure fire guarantee that even with all of the proper training, planning and guidance, that you will make it to the top. Stuff happens, and life is never predictable, and no matter how cautious you are, there are situations that one can not plan. Such as weather, which is extremely important and can set one back for days, or broken bones from slipping on the ice, and frostbite, which may or may not send you packing up and heading back down to the main base camp. There are actually people, who for whatever reason, get stuck and even find themselves with a life threatening situation. They are forced to evaluate the circumstances and decide whether you, as an individuals, are ready and ABLE to continue. At the same time, and it’s not a rare thing, you find someone from a different team that is in danger, and has life threatening injuries, and needs to be tended to. You and your team need to carefully evaluate the entire situation, whether or not it’s worth the risk to help save him/her. In some unfortunate situations, because of the dangers of losing your own life, or just because you can see that the person is going to die anyway, no matter what you do, you inform the ones down below that it’s hopeless. There are other times that you come across people who will do everything in their power to save a person who is in terrible trouble, and even though it means that they themselves will not reach the top, at that moment in time, will turn around and help them down the mountain to safety.
    Where can we truly bring perspective to the climbing of the highest mountains , The Absenter’s creations, to how we, as Yidden are living our lives today, surrounded with Talmudei Chachmim, Principals, Melamdim, Teachers, and especially parents, who are being “directed” by the Torah, and being guided by our Mentors in life? HOW can we become, as expected, one nation, yet again? What happens if a person, who has reached HIS/HER point on the mountain and decides that he/she cannot keep up with the rest of the team, be it from lack of strength or lack of determination? If his/her load (from the backpack) is too much to handle, do you just go on without them, or do you say to yourself, “this person needs personal guidance, inspiration, or even needs to be evaluated, to see if maybe there is a more serious problem”. At the same time, we must instill in our children, from the start, “anchors”, and a structured way of understanding. If you explain properly, why we live the way we do, and the difference between Halacha and Tradition, and continue to instill beliefs with a love for them, instead of forcing them , it can make a difference between an anchor being pushed into the mountain with just a small push, or with a team effort.
    Someone who was born with the strength to endure all that is required of them, in this world, is so much different than the person that had to struggle to get to their own spiritual destination, and they both need to be guided on their own levels. For those schools, communities and homes, that think that if a person can’t hold up to THEIR decision to better THEMSELVES, they don’t deserve to be part of their “world”, it is no different than someone who is trying to climb the Mountain high and higher, against his will and then one day is told that HE MUST continue no matter if he is secure or not. Eventually he will fall off the mountain, and may even be lost forever. There is nothing wrong with someone who is different, even if he is born with the strength and into a life where they have the proper tools already but decide that he/she wants to follow a different path. That person should be encouraged, warmly, without coercion, to follow along the path which had been laid out for them. Unlike the ones who had to acquire the tools and learn how to use them, either by themselves, or from learning with a guide. Usually, the person that has to struggle the most to get to a certain point in their life, appreciates the journey and the destination a whole lot more than the ones who born into it. Making a vow, to continue further up the “ladder of life” should not be a communal decision, nor can it be a general decision, it MUST be an individual decision. Although, as time goes on, and society changes, there needs to be people, such as Talmudei Chachmim, to look at the whole picture and step up to the “podium”, to INSTRUCT the guiders in a way that can help their communities “adhere to the voices of change.” When there is a global problem that needs to be dealt with, a person can’t just stand at the top of a mountain, with a microphone, and say to everyone, CHANGE, because there is a problem! It needs to be addressed in a way that each person feels it as their own obligation, as a Yid, to continue climbing. If a group of people are on the mountain, and the guide, who understands all of them, because he struggled , as well, along with his team, to get to where they are, then he, himself, is able to say to all of them, that it’s time to go higher, and I will help you get there. He will not judge nor force and demand that everyone go at the same pace, if they are not ready for it. But, at the same time, it is very important for everyone in the entire group to continue as a team, so a compassionate team leader will help the ones who are not as strong, by instructing him, and holding his/her hand, if needed, to continue. The ones, who are stronger, will be told that it’s time to go higher and the leader just needs to show them where to go.
    When Moshe Rabeinu went around, by the footsteps of Har Sinai, counting the Yidden, he did so because he was instructed to by The Aibeshter (Bamidbar) obviously, the counting had nothing to do with the Aibeshter’s need to know how many Jews there were. Without the census The Aibeshter always knows exactly how many Jews there are. The counting was for our sake. The counting was to teach us that we are individually valued and cherished. Simply put, The Aibeshter counted the Yidden because He loved them. It is analogous to a stamp or coin collector lovingly pouring over his collection viewing and appreciating every theme, texture, shape, and color. Likewise, The Aibeshter cherishes every one of His children and continuously counts them showing His love for the individual Jew and the collective whole of the nation.
    So again, how can we be judged as one person, when The Aibeshter looks at each of us as individuals? Though Klal Yisroel, as a whole, is always expected to keep up with the ever changing times, it needs to be done in such a manner that the person does not fool his inner being into thinking that it’s now time for a complete change. Today, many of us see, unfortunately, a judging society, trying to MOLD people, instead of guiding them. If someone is part of a group, they are expected to BE that group, live exactly like that group and if they can’t live up to the majority of the group, it’s time for them to leave altogether. The same thing is with families, who are, at most, expecting that their children follow in their precise footsteps, for which they have laid out for them. In most case, (percentage wise), children do and obviously have, followed in their parents and grandparents footsteps. But unfortunately, there have been, and more so today’s days, exceptions to the RULE. Like the tools one brings with them on the journey to climb Mt Everest, a child especially, needs to know HOW to use the tools, what they mean to them, and when they are needed to be used. There MUST BE compassion, understanding, and most importantly, ACCEPTANCE, for the individual person your child, student, or even friend has become. “You are first a Jew and that has many levels to it, then you are a Frum Jew, and we are all aware that there are many many levels to being Frum”. Again, if someone is lucky, so to speak, to be born into a family where their parents are Talmidei Chachamim, or lucky enough to be bentched with amazing families, for them, as individuals, it shouldn’t be expected that it’s always paved with golden roads. A person makes their surroundings, and the surroundings can make a person. It’s all how you look at it. The reason one cannot judge those whose footsteps they have yet to walk in, is simple….they have never lived or felt their experiences, and struggled through life’s many encounters. So the only JUDGES, in this world, and during this time, can be the Aibeshter, and the guidance MUST come from people who are aware of the persons needs, physical and spiritual, (that’s why it’s so important to have Mashpiam, to guide them properly, on their own levels, slowly, if it has to be). For those who were, so to speak, “programmed” into being G-d fearing Jews, and appreciate what it truly means to be Frum, and understands, completely, WHY we do the things we do, as Frum people, then you should be delighted, and recognize the value of what you have, and never take it for granted.
    It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what is going in the world today, and how difficult it has become to “hold on” to the quality of life that so many people need and are looking for, to instill into their children. We, as educated Principals, Teachers, Parents and friends, need to be able to see the inner qualities of a person, not just the outer(though how a person looks on the outside usually portrays WHO they are on the inside, but not the ones who have a Taiveh for dressing that way, or for those who were brought up differently) Today more and more attention is being focused on the things that they see, outside, and so rules are enforced. As time goes on, and technology continues to invade our lives, in the positive and in the negative, we are constantly seeing more and more people fall prey to the ever growing “free fallers” who find solace in occupying their time with things that are not exactly considered constructive behavior. But did anyone ever ask themselves why this is happening in the first place? Why would someone, who has everything going for them, in regard to how his/her life has been planned out for them, just all of a sudden fall? There are many people who have the same opportunities and yet have the common sense to stay away from things that will harm them and corrupt their lives, and instead make it their business to turn something that can potentially be hazardous to their “health”, into something enlightening. Because they, in my own opinion, have been taught with a strong foundation, and understanding as to WHY we live the way we do. We need not think about how someone else is serving The Aibeshter, just how we are and our children are. If you teach from the ground up, with the right techniques, and the perception as to what makes him/her different that the rest of the world, you CAN end up with a person who, on their own, will have a beautiful relationship with Hashem. Someone who is not learned in every part of Torah, is no less connected with the Aibeshter than someone who really is not capable of learning.
    The Baal Shem Tov was once shown from heaven that a certain simple man called Moshe the Shepherd served G d, blessed be He, better than he did. He longed to meet this shepherd, so he ordered his horses harnessed to his coach, and traveled, with a few of his disciples, to the place where he was told the shepherd lived.
    They stopped in a field at the foot of a hill, and saw, on the hillside above them, a shepherd who was blowing his horn to call his flock. After the sheep gathered to him, he led them to a nearby trough to water them. While they were drinking, he looked up to heaven and began to call out loudly, “Master of the world, you are so great! You created heaven and earth, and everything else! I’m a simple man; I’m ignorant and unlearned, and I don’t know how to serve You or praise You. I was orphaned as a child and raised among gentiles, so I never learned any Torah. But I can blow on my shepherd’s horn like a shofar, with all my strength, and call out, ‘The L-rd is G d!’” After blowing with all his might on the horn, he collapsed to the ground, without an ounce of energy, and lay there motionless until his strength returned.
    Then he got up and said, “Master of the world, I’m just a simple shepherd; I don’t know any Torah, and I don’t know how to pray. What can I do for You? The only thing I know is to sing shepherds’ songs!” He then began to sing loudly and fervently with all his strength until, again, he fell to the earth, exhausted, without an ounce of energy.
    After recovering, he got up again and began to call out, “Master of the world! What is it worth that I blew on my horn and sang songs for You, when You’re so great? What more can I do to serve You?” He paused for a moment and said, “There’s something else I know how to do, and I’ll do it for Your honor and glory!” He then stood on his head and began to wave his feet wildly in the air. Then he did somersaults one after the other, until he collapsed on the ground, exhausted. The Baal Shem Tov and his disciples watched all this from a distance, in amazement.
    The shepherd lay there silently until his strength returned. Again, he began to speak and said, “Master of the world, I’ve done what I can, but I know it’s not enough! What more can I do to serve You?” After pausing to reflect, he said, “Yesterday, the nobleman who owns the flock made a feast for his servants, and when it ended, he gave each of us a silver coin. I’m giving that coin to You as a gift, O G d, because You created everything and You feed all Your creatures, including me, Moshe the little shepherd!” Saying this, he threw the coin upward.
    At that moment, the Baal Shem Tov saw a hand reach out from heaven to receive the coin. He said to his disciples, “This shepherd has taught me how to fulfill the verse: ‘You shall love the L rd your G d with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.’
    In the words of a great scholar, The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Reb Menachem Mendel Schneerson ZT”L,[T]he attitude of Lubavitch is quite the opposite [of not accepting a fellow Jew] and one of the basic Principles of Lubavitch is the emphasis on Ahavas Yisroel [loving your fellow Jew], which, as the Old Rabbi [Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, first Chabad Rebbe] declared, is a “vessel” for Ahavas Hashem [the love of G d], and that “love your fellow Jew as yourself” means literally, as yourself… This attitude of Lubavitch extends to all Jews without distinction…You surely know that generally speaking, there is no perfection in this world. Therefore, everything as well as every individual has room for improvement, as our sages expressed it “all things of holiness should be on the upgrade.” There are no exceptions from this rule, for even the greatest Tzaddik [righteous individual] must not be content with his present status but must seek to advance further and higher. The Rebbe continues by explaining that thinking about the ways in which one needs to grow should not be discouraging. We need to know that G d gives every single person the ability to fulfill all that is required of that person: At the same time, every commandment of the Torah is also a delegation of power and [the] ability to fulfill it, even for the individual who has not yet attained the rank of Tzaddik. For the Torah does not expect of an individual more than he can accomplish and that which he is commanded to do, he can surely accomplish. It is important to bear in mind the above, because it is one of the tried strategies of the Yetzer [person’s inclination] to attempt to discourage the Jew from fulfilling his obligations by suggesting that it is impossible to fulfill all the Torah and Mitzvoth [commandments], or that it is a waste of effort and so on. The Rebbe wrote, “It is not my purpose just to preach. However, when I am asked for help or advice, I must state the facts clearly.”The Rebbe explained that fulfilling G d’s commandments is not about doing something for the benefit of G d; rather fulfilling the commandments is actually for one’s own benefit: For these laws, as all the other laws of the Torah, were given not for the benefit of the Creator, but for the benefit of the observer, and for his good health, both physically and spiritually. They are meant for the good and happy life of man, not only in after life, but simply also in this life. The Baal Shem Tov, “G d desires the heart. Any mitzvah a person may do, whether great or small, simple or difficult, is judged by how it is performed. A mitzvah done for G d’s sake, with great joy and purity of heart, is very precious to the Creator. G d cries out to the angels, ‘Look at the mitzvah my son/daughter has done!
    I would like to end off by making it my business to beg people to work on themselves instead of looking at what other people are doing, unless they are a part of your lives. If your work on the inner part of a person, it will show on the outside. There are too many people that look at someone who dresses immodestly, and says to themselves, or worse, says to their friends, “look how he/she dresses, I wouldn’t go next to him/her with a 10 foot pole, what a nebach he/she has become”. That is worse than how the other person is dresses, because not only are you speaking Lashon Harah, you are judging them. We, as educated Principals, Teachers, Parents and friends, need to be able to see the inner qualities of a person, not just the outer(though how a person looks on the outside usually portrays WHO they are on the inside, but not the ones who have a Taiveh for dressing that way, or for those who were brought up differently) Today more and more attention is being focused on the things that they see, outside, and so rules are enforced If your intentions are to help them, then do something about it, you may find out what is really going on, and that’s only if you know that this person has “gone off”. But what if that person is climbing up the ladder? Klal Yisroel is not being destroyed because of the ever changing times; it’s being destroyed because there is no foundation, and a huge lack of Love for a fellow JEW!
    we all be Zoche to see the coming of Moshiach, speedily in OUR days, and may The Aibeshter see His people coming together as one nation, understanding and compassionate, because, everything the The Aibeshter does is for a reason. We cannot question it, but we can accept it and OUR own missions to change ourselves. May the Aibeshter have Nachas from His children, and Rochmunis on His Nation, who are in need of a Refuah from this Golus, that has lasted way too long.

    • I’m not sure I understand your comment’s connection to my post, Tracey, but I do agree that mountain climbing is a useful metaphor for living a good albeit difficult life. I also agree that we Jews might do well to spend more time appreciating and understanding one another and less time judging and gossiping.

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