An Open Letter to Deborah Feldman

by Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt

Dear Deborah,

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.

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12 Responses

  1. Shanks says:

    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.

    Could you name a couple recommendations?

  2. Eric Leibman says:

    There are people like her in every generation. They happen. They turn on their own and denounce them to the world and they eat it up. We have had them in the past, we have them now and they will always be around. Go forward, and concentrate on the things we can actually do something about.

  3. Aryeh L. says:

    So she should have stayed put?

  4. Adie Horowitz says:

    Thank you for putting into words, what so many of us are feeling in our hearts.
    Shame on you Barbara Walters, for acknowledging Deborah as the voice of a woman representing orthodoxy.
    And shame on you Deborah Feldman!

  5. Julie says:

    Not quite as simple as you make out–it’s one thing for a unified couple to make a joint decision to make a change in their religious life. No matter how exaggerated certain aspects of her book are (and I have read the entire book, not just excerpts posted online), she was a young woman (with little exposure to things outside of her community) in a dysfunctional marriage. To expect her to have uprooted herself and moved to a modern Orthodox community on her own, without any contacts, is unrealistic. It sounded like she relied on help from non-Jewish classmates (and possibly her non-religious mother, though she doesn’t make that totally clear).

  6. shaya says:

    Aryeh: No, I think he’s telling her to become Modern Orthodox.

  7. Nachum says:

    All true. But just bear in mind that “seeking validation” can be a two-way street.

  8. L. Oberstein says:

    If one has never experienced in their own family a child who is off he derech then we cannot possibly understand. Deborah Feldman is in many ways immature and enjoying her notoriety. She gets joy out of eating treif ,etc. It is really understandable. She is to be pitied because anyone who ends an interview (in the NY Post) by saying that the only man who ever made her feel normal is a Catholic in New Orleans who grew up in the woods, that woman has some issues. However, lots of Yiddishe kinder are leaving strict observance but most don’t write books about it and go on TV. They just go away from home and find the outside world enticing. Deborah Feldman lived in a very restrictive Satmar culture but how many kids from the rest of the frum world leave the observant community. Not all of them grew up in totally dysfunctional homes with a mother who ran away and a mentally challenged father. This girl is the tip of the iceberg .

  9. dr. bill says:

    Shaya, Telling a chareidi to become MO given how MO are portrayed, is no small feat. a close friend of mine is a physician one day a week in Kiryat Yoel tending to the needs of a cross-section of chassidim including some of the leaders of the community. Each year he receives a few boxes of shmurah matzah that were visible on his desk. a chareidi woman patient asked him, despite his small knitted yarmulkah, if he eats bread on pesach. he replied: Only pumpernickel!

    i wish that those who choose to leave could find an alternative orthodox stream.

  10. Abe A says:

    A letter to Simon & Schuster.

    Re: Deborah Feldman and Unorthodox.

    Perhaps you should have looked at the the countless Chassidim and Orthodox individuals worldwide, who have become huge successes careerwise, through their intellect, hard work and education, who are serving humanity in many arenas: some doctors, some lawyers, psychiatrists, judges, scientists, actuaries, authors, politicians, etc.

    There is no field in the US and beyond where Chassidim and Orthodox individuals have not become successful, where the world at large hasn’t benefited from their brainpower and expertise. And this is with their 4th grade education, according to DF – ha! At the same time, they have no desire or interest or thought to leave Chassidism or Orthodoxy behind.

    Believe it or not, the above didn’t need the 150 or so member organization that Ms. Feldman speaks of fondly, laden with social misfits and shlemazels, to straighten out their minds and guide them in life and offer them vocational advice in addition to “everything goes” sex education, etc.

    Some do, obviously. Once they’re out in the big world, all morals die for many. The cancer of immorality and the “everything goes in the name of enlightenment” mindset takes over. Not with everyone though.

    Simon & Schuster: she’s NOT the first Chassidic individual to have gone to college! You chose HER to tell HER story and thereby represent uniquely successful (ex)Chassidim? You people are living in the dark ages! Shame on you!

    If anything the book should have been named Un-“Satmar” but even among Chassidic people there are highly educated and very worldly individuals.

    Are all non-Chassidic people educated and worldly?

    Orthodox people are mostly VERY highly educated and VERY worldly. Bad choice of title, S&S!

    To those who are unaware, Jack Lew, White House Chief of Staff, and Senator Joseph Lieberman, are two very highly visible Orthodox Sabbath Observant Jews, among many worldwide, and proud of it.

  11. Allan Katz says:

    The challenge is to look beyond the ‘ anti’ of a press article and book and work on the issues that do exist , no matter how small.

  12. Eleanor says:

    It should be noted that the book is written not as an autobiography, but rather as a memoir. So right off the bat you know these are Ms. Feldman’s memories and how she interpreted her life. A memoir by nature is not necessarily complete fact.

    The book ends with the author saying how glad she is to be Jewish and how there are many treasured memories of her childhood back in Williamsburg despite the fact that she cannot stay there long when visiting. Even the coffee she drinks in New Orleans brings back good memories for her due to the chicory. Give the girl a break. If she now notices every non-Jewish person out there in the world it is because she was kept from the world.

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