Deborah Feldman was born and raised in the Hasidic community of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of the New York Times Bestselling memoir, UNORTHODOX: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots (Simon and Schuster.) Currently, she is working on a follow-up memoir, which finds her embarking on independence as a single woman and mother, finding a new kind of Jewish life for herself, and discovering the far-flung yet familiar community of many like-minded "religious refugees" of all faiths around the world, due out from Blue Rider Press, Penguin, in October of 2013.
When I got married at the age of seventeen I knew very little about my prospective husband, but if there was anything I could be sure of, it was that he knew how to dress. At the wedding he wore a shtreimel as tall as two beer bottles stacked on top of each other. It was fashionable to wear a shtreimel that was high and made of very dark, stiff, and shiny fur. Also, I noticed that his satin coat had a minimalist design, much more current than the busy floral patterns that had been stylish a few years ago. Even his shiny leather dress shoes ended in a square toe, when the round one had only recently gone out of fashion. To an outsider, he would have looked just like any other Hasid. But in my world he was a “fein shmeker,” someone who liked the finer things in life.
When I was a child at my grandfather’s seder, I would listen raptly as he told the story of the Exodus. He reminded me that while the Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt they managed to retain their sense of identity in three ways; using distinct Jewish names, speaking the Jewish language, and wearing the traditional garments of their ancestors. Of course, all of this invited additional discrimination; it would have been much easier for the Jews if they had blended in, but it was in the merit of those three sacrifices that God saw fit to rescue the Jewish people, my grandfather reminded me. He then proceeded with the moral of the story, assuring me that America was the modern-day Egypt, a country that encouraged us to shed our markers of difference and stir us into the melting pot until our uniqueness could no longer be identified. However, like the slaves in Egypt, we would continue to maintain our unique names, language, and mode of dress, and eventually God would have mercy on us too, and lead us to the Promised Land as a reward.
Of course, I highly doubt that the Hasidic costume of black satin coat and fur hat in any way resembled the costume of the Israelites who sweated it out in the desert sun. The current Hasidic costume is simply modeled after the garb that Eastern European men donned hundreds of years ago to protect themselves against the bitter cold winters. The point of a Jewish costume is not that it is indigenous to the Jews themselves, but that it marks them clearly as different from the rest of society. So while the costume itself has changed drastically over time, its criteria have not.
The Hasidic uniform is a many-splendored thing. Some will tell you it is designed simply for purposes of modesty. Others will explain to you that the precise arrangement of each article of clothing is part of a pattern intended to ward off the evil eye. The long knit gartel that Hasidic men wrap around the waist of their black coats is supposed to separate the northern part of the body from the southern part, because everything below the belt is, well, irrelevant in any interaction with God. Still, if you were to ask the first Satmar Rabbi, he would probably tell you that, details aside, the costumes are there simply to let people know that their wearers are different. In fact, they serve as a reminder to the Hasids themselves of their difference. The Rabbi would be quick to assure you that while every item of clothing has a purpose and nothing about the Hasidic dress is arbitrary, what remains most important is the bottom line: Don’t confuse us with outsiders.
What is a uniform? When you clothe a group of people in a specific costume, you submerge their individuality beneath the interests and identity of the group. If you are a Catholic schoolgirl first and foremost, then you are expected to think twice before acting lewdly, because that would be inappropriate considering the institution you are supposed to be representing. The uniform is there to ensure proper behavior.
Hasids send a message to the outside world, saying: We are the holy ones. So it’s shocking to see a guy with long, swinging side-curls stuffing singles into a stripper’s g-string. The sidecurls tell the world that the men sporting them are different, but they are also there as a warning to the wearer: don’t misrepresent the place from which you come. Not that everyone takes the costume seriously. Some think that if they take off the coats and the hats and stroll around in their white shirts and pants and tuck their earlocks behind their ears that they are somehow off duty. That explains why you will sometimes run into a Hasid in the most unexpected of places. They are taking a break from the never-ending work of representing the greatest movie star of all. When they go home they will put on their shtreimels and beketsches, and resume their efforts to gladden the heart of their maker.
The first time I put on a pair of jeans I was twenty-two years old. It was in the parking lot of the college I was secretly attending, and I slipped them on under my long black skirt discreetly before whipping off the skirt to reveal the awful, wonderful nakedness of my denim legs. How I resented being forced to look different growing up! Sure, I knew I should be able to understand the concept. Of course I wanted to deserve God’s mercy and love. But did I have to be such a freak show in the process?
Everyone around me could instantly know who I was and where I came from after sparing me an instantaneous, disdainful glance. They saw the long skirt, the tights, the shirt buttoned at the wrist, and they knew. Because they knew, they no longer saw me as an individual. They did not wonder what thoughts ran through my head and if they were different than they should have been. Instead, they lumped me in with a group I wanted no part of, and treated me the way they felt I should be treated. This caused me almost physical pain.
Can you imagine what it is like to look out into the world and not be looked back at? The costume I wore prevented anyone from seeing me. It was like I was invisible. My skirts became a prison, my wigs a weighty burden. If I wanted to venture out into foreign territory, I would have to deal with the stares, with the unending self-consciousness. This then, was what the Rabbi wanted to accomplish when he designed my uniform; to minimize my temptation to venture into forbidden territory, and to prevent outsiders from taking an interest in me.
The morning after my wedding, while my husband was murmuring his morning prayers in a nearby synagogue, I took a razor to my head. I would continue to do so at least once a month for three years before I became tired of looking at my bare, forlorn scalp in the mirror. When I started growing it in secretly, my husband fretted that others would find out. It could peek out from underneath my wig, he argued, and then everyone would be gossiping about me. Even if I started shaving again I would always be known as the woman who doesn’t cut off her hair.
Hasidic Jews like taking things to the extreme. They call this practice “chumrah”. They feel that if they show God just how eager they are to fulfill his commandments down to the nitty-gritty details, God will reciprocate by showing them extra mercy. The idea is, you can’t go wrong by doing too much, but you can easily err by doing too little.
The Torah says not to round out the sidelocks, the hair that grows in the front of the ear. Orthodox Jews fulfill this commandment by allowing the hair in front to grow as long as the hair on the rest of their head. Hassidic Jews have always preferred to grow the sidelocks as long as their shoulders while keeping the rest of their head as closely shaved as possible. This practice does not date back to the Jews of yore, and it certainly wasn’t known to the slaves in Egypt, but it does make the Hasidic Jews stand out in modern society, so in that sense, it works, right?
The shulchan aruch, or the book of Jewish law, says that married women should cover their heads. The Satmar Rabbi decided that the women would shave their heads to stand out even more among their gentile peers. When you run into a Hasidic woman and you notice her foreign headgear, it is obvious to you that she is different. You know it, she knows it, and neither of you will ever forget it. Mission accomplished.
Still, girls like bows and ribbons. They like to dress up. What is a Hasidic girl to do when she has to cover her knees, wrists, toes and collarbone? Why, she shops for Ferregamo headscarves and Tory Burch flats! She wears long-sleeved Lacoste button downs tucked into Ralph Lauren bias-cut skirts. And when the racks of Bloomingdales show a dearth of appropriate hemlines, the skirts and dresses are altered by expert seamstresses to the appropriate standards of modesty. Even my grandmother would browse stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman’s so she could memorize the latest fashions and recreate her own, more demure versions at home on her sewing machine.
Even the men can get creative. They purchase Gucci dress shoes and Prada eyeglasses. They import their fur shtreimels from Scandinavia and their satin coats from France. They groom themselves into dashing specimens of the Hasidic fashion plate. Most likely the reason I agreed to marry my husband in the first place was so that I could show him off to my friends. He certainly did cut a dashing figure in his old-fashioned European suit cut of the finest woolen materials.
My husband turned out to have a secret temptation of his own, but it wasn’t jeans. He was a Yankee fan. We didn’t have a TV so he would sit for hours in the car, listening to the game on the radio. I didn’t understand how he could have one, singular weakness for baseball but find avoiding everything else easy. Still, when he took me to my first Yankee game I squirmed uncomfortably in the box, realizing for the first time the double humiliation of standing out in my wig, and of course, my companion. Because even when he took off the black coat, and the hat, there he was, undeniably Hasidic. I could feel the judgment, the curiosity, even the disdain from everyone around us, and it made me want to disappear. Still, even if I could take off my wig and camouflage my origins with jeans and some lipstick, I could never change the fact that I was married to an accessory that would always make me stand out.
If I tell you now that what I crave most in the world is anonymity, maybe you will be able to understand. I live in one of the most crowded cities in the world. Each day I make my way through the masses, enduring the pushing and shoving on street corners, in subways, in movie theaters. Still, I’m just one in the crowd now. I blend in. You could meet me on the street and you would never know it.
As a child, there was nothing more I could wish for than this simple freedom. I make a choice to be ordinary because sometimes being extraordinary is like an ill-fitting dress; a discomfort that must be shed and replaced with a garment more suited to one’s figure.
The Satmar Rabbi said that if only the Jews would stop trying to assimilate then tragedies like the enslavement in Egypt, the Spanish Inquisition, or even the holocaust wouldn’t keep happening. Did he ever stop to wonder that it was deciding to be different in the first place that might have been an equally valid reason for our history of persecution? Difference or no, should it be imposed on one from birth? Am I really only Jewish when I am wearing the clothes?
With all that emphasis on appearance, what attention is paid to the heart? The next time you see a Hasid walk past you, his coat flaring like a superhero’s cape behind him, you might want to ask him just how godly he feels on the inside. I wore the costume faithfully for twenty two years, but the only emotions I felt on the inside were shame and discontent. There are those who will say that if I had just continued to wear the costume that my feelings wouldn’t have mattered. All that matters is keeping up appearances. For whom, you may ask? For God.