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 started the first chapter of my memoir in September 2009, the blank page on my computer screen terrified me. Where to begin, I wondered? There was so much material to mine from, enough to fill ten books. How could I narrow it down so that the narrative arc came across clearly and accessibly to the average reader? It seemed like an impossible task.
My life has always been chaotic. Not only did I grow up in one of the most eccentric and secretive communities in the world, but even within that odd society I was something of an anomaly. To be an oddball in the Hasidic community is to be doubly cursed. My family life was fraught with drama and secrets, exacerbated by a society full of gossip and rebuke. I have been told so many things about my mother and father, only to discover while writing and researching my memoir, that many of the things I had been told were untrue, or more complicated than they initially appeared.
In the end, I decided to open my first chapter when I was eleven years old, a point at which my life settled into something resembling routine and a moment when things began to feel, if not crystal-clear, then at the very least, emotionally reliable. My earliest solid memories begin in my Bubby’s kitchen, and this is where I decided to take the reader.
As I proceeded to write the book, which took a year to complete and another year to edit, I tried to select experiences that I felt were most formative, the ones that had contributed to the person that I am today and the life I was living now. After all, my job was to explain to readers how I had gotten here, and it was a question I asked myself repeatedly. What pushed me away?
In Unorthodox, I have compiled a collection of memories and events that directly led to my departure from the Hasidic community. I have offered the reader experiences that were most important to me, all the while trying my best to protect the privacy of people I cared about. There are those who object to my decision to omit certain aspects of my life. In response, I can only say that there are matters about which I am not confident I know the whole truth, and I prefer to avoid further speculating on the personal lives of people who have not invited the kind of public scrutiny I am allowing for myself.
The sister who was born to my mother is a minor and out of respect for her privacy I will not be discussing her in a public forum. That said, I do not deny, and never have denied her existence. My mother, whose suffering I can only begin to imagine, was brave enough to pave the way for me; and I do not want to repay her courage with an unwarranted public examination.
But since some news outlets have seen fit to print the real names of my family members, which I changed or left out of my memoir, and even photos of my mother, I would like to make some statements that will, I hope, clarify for the reasonable reader some of the alleged discrepancies while still respecting my mother’s personal boundaries. There are those who assert that my mother did not “abandon the community” when I was a toddler, or furthermore until I was a teenager. The idea of community in a religious setting is mutable, and Williamsburg is a big place. My mother may have lived within its bounds, but there was a time early in my life that she no longer adhered rigidly to the Satmar way, and was emphatically not living with me, or raising me. As a child I was often the pawn being pushed around by those fighting a bigger battle, and although my family dynamic didn’t always make sense to me, I knew which adults were in charge, and my mother wasn’t one of them. The reasons for that are varied, complicated, and largely related to her private life, not mine. The divorce records that have been circulating online tell only a small chronological part of a much bigger story that involves a profoundly troubled marriage, a religious divorce, years of separation, and finally, a legal divorce. Sadly, it’s an all-too-common tale of a dysfunctional marriage.
I can assure every reader that in the process of writing my memoir I performed thorough soul-searching, and in an effort to uncover the essence of my life story I shared intimate and painful details of experiences that most people would want to keep private; and it certainly wasn’t easy. However, I knew that when talking about these experiences I could, at the very least, be sure of their veracity, because they had happened to me, and to me alone.
Regarding the story I relayed about the boy who died, I regret that information I did not include in my book has found its way into a discussion of the veracity of my memoir. In the book I do not offer any identifying information about this boy or his family. I do not state his age, and I do not state that his father murdered him. I relay a conversation that I had with my husband, showing that my mind went to a certain conclusion and stating that my husband urged me not to jump to conclusions. I felt this was a significant moment in my life, relating to my decision to leave Satmar with my son. I stand by what I wrote in Unorthodox regarding my feelings about the event as I experienced it then.
In sharing such deeply personal anecdotes, I hoped to reach out to other women, regardless of their religious background, who were stuck in similar situations. Telling my story has been a cathartic process for me; I have let go of a painful past and I am living a glorious future. I want that to be an example to other women; I want to show them that no matter how unfortunate the circumstances of your birth, you can do anything and be anyone. You can live your dream.
I extend my gratitude to all those who have read my book and shared with me their heartfelt support and encouragement. I believe that in the end, despite some hurt feelings, this book will help other women find their own voice, and that makes everything worth it.