Photo courtesy of Blue Rider Press
Deborah Feldman came of age in Williamsburg when it was known as the coolest neighbourhood in the world, but she didn't spend her teenage years at warehouse parties or eating overpriced Earl Grey-flavoured ice cream. Feldman was born into Williamsburg's Satmar Hasidic community, a sect of ultra-Orthodox Jews known for both their extremism and their segregation from the outside world, and spent her youth preparing for an arranged marriage.
After she gave birth to her son, she broke with tradition, fled home, attended Sarah Lawrence College and wrote Unorthodox, a memoir about her escape from Brooklyn. The book revealed the secretive sect's customs and sexist traditions and sparked controversy throughout the Jewish world. In one notorious chapter, Feldman's husband came home and told her about a Hasidic father who cut off his son's penis and slit his throat after he caught him masturbating. According to the story Feldman says her husband told her, the Hasidic community covered up the crime. They subsequently denied the event occurred and attacked Feldman and the journalists who wrote about Unorthodox.
Unfortunately for Feldman's haters, her story won't be disappearing from the media any time soon. Unorthodox became a New York Times bestseller, and Blue Rider Press recently published Exodus, her memoir about being an outsider trying to join mainstream American society, which Joan Rivers called “a moving and honest memoir of one young woman's capacity for reinvention”. This month, I called Feldman to discuss her new book, the Satmars' secrets and the time she fell in love with a German who was a descendent of Nazis.
VICE: Why do you think the world is so interested in Satmar Hasidic community, considering it's so small in proportion to the rest of the world?
Deborah Feldman: I actually think what’s most interesting about this community is that it thrives in New York City. They run all the businesses out of the 47th Street Diamond District and they own all the real estate in Brooklyn, so they interact a lot with the New York community, yet they have these amazingly sheltered lives. I think it's just absolutely stupendous for people to comprehend that they can remain so sheltered in New York, which is the least sheltered place in the world.
What stories from your books stick to people the most?
In Exodus, it’s the German fetish. When I was attending Sarah Lawrence, I met a dominatrix who said, “All these Hasidic Jews come to my dungeon and ask me to dress up as a Nazi and beat them. What’s up with that?” And I was like, 'Wait a second. Do I have that?' I’ve always been weirdly fascinated and obsessed with Germans, but mostly just afraid of them. I ended up travelling through Europe, retracing my grandmother’s steps through the Holocaust, and I fell in love with a German who was descended from Nazis at the same time. It was completely psychotic, but also completely therapeutic.
What was it like watching the Satmars interact with the artists who moved to Williamsburg in the late 90s and early 2000s?
I was about 13 or 14 when all of this became an issue. When the Satmar community took residence in Williamsburg in the 1940s and 1950s, Williamsburg was a slum – it was mostly wetlands, and it was just a real industrial wasteland. They decided to establish their idealised version of a ghetto there because they felt it was the perfect spot, and nobody would try to live there except them. And then, lo and behold, Brooklyn transformed. All of a sudden landlords who had buildings that were previously worth almost nothing now had goldmines.
There was a tremendous controversy in Williamsburg at the time because the rabbis were so concerned that these Hasidic landlords were so tempted by the money and would start renting out like crazy in the community next to us, and that all these cool youngsters who partied and drank would come in and steal our women and corrupt our men, and the whole community would collapse. I have a lot of friends who live in Williamsburg right now who rent shitty apartments, and they’re always complaining about their Hasidic landlords. I read an article a few months ago about a Hasidic landlord who was murdered. The question was, “Who did not hate this man?” All his tenants hated him!
Did they ever find out who did it?
It was really crazy. They found him in a dumpster.
I have to ask you about the masturbation story in Unorthodox. That was really horrific.
What I was trying to explain in the book was here I was at a moment when a lot of abuse was surfacing. I had a young son who I was losing influence over because mothers are not considered worthy of having a say in a son’s upbringing [according to Satmar tradition], and my husband comes home and tells me about this horrible murder he claimed his brother had witnessed. It was the conversation and the way he reacted to it that made me realise I would never be able to ensure my son’s safety, which was why I included the story. A lot of people heard that conversation and believed that I was accusing people of committing that crime – the only thing I can attest to is that I had that conversation. I don’t believe that it’s ever been conclusively resolved. Whether or not it’s been covered up, we don’t know.
How do you handle the backlash against you for speaking about events like this?
I live in the middle of nowhere; no one knows where I live. I have no cell phone service, so I feel safe. I have a lot of conviction in what I’m doing – I’m following in a tradition of Jews throughout history who demonstrated conviction and talked about inconvenient ideas or pointed at hypocrisy and inconsistency in the Jewish community, and were summarily ostracised and excommunicated from the community as a result. You’re either a hater or a thinker. I think that because the Jewish culture is so vulnerable in greater society, we feel like we have to present a unified front to cover up our squabbles. But I think instead of having squabbles, we can just have open and honest conversations and not come from such a traumatised place.