An Open Letter to Deborah Feldman
by Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt
Your book, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots, touched a lot of nerves and unsettled a lot of hearts in the Orthodox Jewish community. It is not every day that a Satmar woman divorces her husband, moves to Manhattan and writes a tell-all book about the experience. It is not every day that a Satmar woman writes about her Chassidic experience with derision and her sexual relations without inhibition.
My wife’s family is from Satmar, too. Her great-great grandfather was the shochet and chazzan in Satmar, Hungary, serving Grand Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum before WWII. Her great-grandfather left Satmar in the 1930s and moved to Portsmouth, England where he served as the Orthodox pulpit rabbi of a less than observant congregation. His wife wanted to raise their children in a more modern environment and he went along with that decision. He never trimmed his beard or payos in Satmar but did so in Portsmouth. His wife shaved her hair in Satmar but didn’t do so in Portsmouth.
They didn’t write a book about the ordeal, as you did. They respected their parents’ insular ways even if they couldn’t follow the path themselves. They wouldn’t — out of self respect and human dignity — deride those who gave them life, G-d, and an eternal connection to Jewish destiny.
Deborah, our families share much in common. Hassidic life is not for us. In our view we should not be insular; we should make it our mission to inspire the world. Where we part ways, fellow Satmarite, is in the cynicism with which you define every Jewish law, and the sexual subjugation you see in every Hasidic custom. I think you are writing yourself into the text.
You wrote a very personal diary. I have no doubt that you believed all that you wrote to be true (including your allegation of castration and murder in the upstate New York village of Kiryas Joel which has been proven to be false). I wonder, however, if you are open enough to consider that your processing might be uniquely personal, defined through an emotionally scarred and spiritually detached lens. Being born to a father who is developmentally delayed, abandoned by a mother who traded Chassidic Judaism for lesbianism, and, as you claim, abused by your husband may, in part, have affected the way you see the Jewish laws and customs that have defined and inspired your people for the past 2000 years.
Your book became an immediate sensation. What is it that made it so popular? Was it an intellectual treatise, a work of authority? It was not. You write passionately but anecdotally, poignantly but subjectively. Was your Zaide — who took you in as a near orphan, fed you, clothed you, and cared for you — a perverted old man intentionally looking through your lingerie drawer, or merely an old Chasid searching for Chometz in every nook and cranny? Was the sexual turbulence in your first year of marriage reflective of sexual turbulence in all Hasidic unions, or expressions of your husband’s ED and your sexual detachment, affected, in part, by your being abused as a preteen?
You left your husband and heritage choosing instead secular values, where woman is uninhibited and secular knowledge — the study of how the world works though not why it does — is an absolute value.
I have read more profound books by women who rejected secular culture, seeing its lifestyle as hedonistic, godless, and disrespectful of their feminine dignity. They saw in secular culture a society that defines the perfect body as the perfect virtue, the undress of female as art, the augmented female figure as the appropriate trophy on the arm of the rich and famous. They chose Chassidic Judaism instead.
But their books weren’t featured on The View. Their stories weren’t penned in newspapers across the globe. They didn’t receive a call back from Simon and Schuster. I wonder why you think that might be.
It is the alleged window into the Chasidic bedroom that made your book sensational. And that is because there is so little about sex in the secular world that is private, dignified and feminine anymore. It is all so public, aggressive and masculine. When a woman is provocative she is not feminine but masculine, having traded relationship for sex. Perhaps the last frontier of feminine dignity is in the religious bedroom. And you besmirched the most wonderful, intimate experiences of a community by presenting your husband’s non-performance and your emotional trauma as the norm.
The women of The View ate it up. Deborah, it is not you they like. It is your validation that they seek.
Leaving Satmar may be your defining moment. But it is a door, not a destination. What is your ideology? How do you define G-d? How do you make perfect the relationship between created and Creator, man and woman, man and self? How do you understand human challenge, temptation, frailty, and the longing to connect to an Eternal force?
You haven’t addressed the larger issues that any ideology must. Those who cheer you on celebrate what you do not believe, what you do not do. It would be more interesting and inspiring to know what you do believe, what you do in fact do.
Deborah, you are a woman who has crossed a river. You are free, entirely able to live your dreams. What are your dreams? In which moral community will you find a home? Will it be a community in which people care for each other? Will it be a community in which people make sure that no one falls through the cracks? Will it be a community in which even the weakest, parentless children, are provided for? Will it be a community infused by a desire for closeness to the Divine? Will it be a community in which gala weddings are made for the needy, those who can’t pay for it themselves?
I assume it will be. And when you find the community of your choice and raise your son to maturity, I pray that you will be bold enough to look back, to see, to recognize and appreciate, all that a community did for you when you were young and had nothing.
Satmar, indeed, has a lot to teach you.
The author of two books, Yaakov Rosenblatt “tends the flock” literally and figuratively as the CEO of A.D. Rosenblatt Kosher Meats and a rabbi at NCSY – Dallas.