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.
I would like to thank my uncle for sending me this letter because it came as a very timely reminder as to how lucky I am to have escaped the dysfunctional abusiveness of my hasidic family and culture. Read on to see what he wrote (spelling mistakes are his, not mine) and my brief response:
“Hi and a very good morning , it’s nice to hear from you. after such a long time. Did not know your where about. And was worried about you & especially your son.
It’s not my job neither is it my responsibility to tell you what you should do with your life & frankly speaking I really don’t care , whatever you do is fine with me.
In this bit of communication that I have had with you I came notice , that you are very unstable. You don’t know yourself what you are or better yet , you don’t know what you want to do in life.
It’s time for you settle down no matter what , but you have to settle down you have a child , now you are responsible to that child you can’t just pick yourself up go to California than turn around and come back. If you want to run around than give that child to someone else & do whatever you want .
I think it’s time for you to pay a visit to a psychotherapist & sort yourself out as you have very serious issues that you can’t come to terms with. Just don’t forget your issues are not Mine to resolve. Make no misstate & let me repeat I don’t care what path you choose in life. Its fine with me & wish you the best of luck .
You had a wonderful family that was very devoted to you & we all did more than our share, you have decided to throw it away & you yourself & only you destroyed it for no good reason at all. so don’t blame anyone except yourself.
We all pitched in , just to name a few Myself & my brother Valve paid in full for your wedding , you did not have to worry at all. while others struggle to pay for their wedding and are left with Hough debts after their wedding . There are many things that we all did for you & no we did not have too. & there are many more to list but it’s too long & Now is not the time.
However that being said you can’t act like a Moron and self destruct , let me repeat you are self destructing.
By the way just to mention a few of the moronic things that you have done & just go to your own website & please try to explain to me what you are trying to accomplish & let me repeat you could continue writing, posting & even giving interviews . but what the heck are you trying to accomplish & who the hell in this world cares about the little blimp called Williamsburg and they for sure don’t care about you at all just because you have decided to join their culture.
You want to join their wonderful culture go right ahead & you have my blessing & approval. No one is trying to stop you at all. but those dumb things on your website don’t even make sense at all. no one has any idea what you are trying to accomplish. Can you please explain , I can assure you it’s not going to help with your book sales , that is if your book ever makes it thru publishing as I am sure it’s dead on arrival.
In closing let me just say the path you choose is your own & the blame game is very childish. It never helped anyone by blaming someone else. We could all sit here & blame the whole world for our demise each & everyone of us. As we all have issues each & everyday.
It’s never too late to decide what you should do with your life , however you can’t self destruct & let me wish you the best of luck , all I can assure you get back to normal , we are all going to be here for you again & yes people change each & every day & that includes you .
Don’t forget at the end of the day if you are in trouble all those so called great friends of yours won’t even be there & only this family will be there for you. just think of these few words. Its only family that is there & it does not matter what you think of this family but they were all there for you & should you turn yourself around will be there once again. G-D forbid should ever be in trouble I don’t even doubt it for one minute that we will be the first ones to find out & yes we will be there for you in a blink of on eye.”
My dear Uncle,
my father’s brother,
Never in my life did anyone in YOUR family care anything about my well-being they just cared about themselves. I never asked you to pay for my wedding and I never asked to get married.
You just reminded me once again why I am so happy I left all of you behind. No matter how hard my life gets, it’s worth it when I think that I will never have to have anything to do with all of you again. I could be homeless on the street and it would still be better. The truth is, there are people in my life that are better than family, that give without agendas. And in the end I will be much happier that I am stable and successful without your help. Any sane person can see that ANY DAMAGE I have (which no psychiatrist can see for some strange reason because every single one that my grandfather dragged me to said I was normal) COMES FROM YOU, my FAMILY, and the CULTURE I was raised in. Only now that I am free can I truly hope to be happy in life.
THANK GOD, THANK GOD, that you wrote this email. THANK GOD I am reminded that I am free from the abusive bullshit and tyranny of your world. I have never been so joyful as I am today, to know that I have successfully escaped your abuse.
It took six months for Eli to ask me to come back, the first time. Then four months later he tried again. His argument was that, of all the couples in our community, we had been the least unhappy. We got along better than everyone else, he reminded me, adjusting his black velvet yarmulka on his newly shorn head. I wasn’t the only rebel in our relationship, it turned out. The golden side-curls, or peyos, that Eli had sported so proudly throughout our marriage had disappeared a few months ago, to go with the new wardrobe of forbidden blue jeans and the faint whiff of cologne.
“So the fact that we were slightly less unhappy than all of the other miserable people around us is your argument that we should stay married?” I wonder if any other husband had ever made that argument to an estranged wife. I knew why he was asking me to come back, and it wasn’t because he thought we were destined to be a couple for all eternity. Simply put, it sucks to be divorced in the Hasidic community. Although a divorced man finds that his new bachelorhood, and the eccentric lifestyle that comes with it, are reluctantly tolerated by the rabbinical authorities, it is a difficult pill to swallow when the bachelor discovers that the only world he knows no longer has a specific social space for him. He becomes, overnight, a fringe member of society, tainted with the permanent stain of divorce.
No, Eli didn’t miss me. He missed his social standing in the community. He missed the security and familiarity of being an integral part of a society that focuses primarily on the family unit. A single man past marriageable age is not a unit, he is a liability. After all, what sort of women are left for him to choose from? All eligible girls have been matched up with eligible boys before they even graduate high school. Why would an innocent young virgin be persuaded to accept the hand of an older, shell-shocked divorcee still reeling from a dissolved marriage?
A year after I left the Hasidic community, and my marriage, Eli had softened on the topic of a reunion. He seemed to understand my position. After all, even he couldn’t deny that we had been unhappy from the first moment. He began to tell me of other couples who had also separated and divorced. I felt he was implying that I might have been the catalyst for others to take stock of their own failing relationships. Perhaps I did violate the unspoken rule of no divorce in the Hasidic community. There were certainly occasions for a divorce, and it was not completely unheard of, but the circumstances had to be extreme. In the case of a mentally ill spouse, for one; infertility, perhaps; the occasional domestic abuse that got out of hand; all of those were grudgingly recognized as legitimate reasons to break up arranged marriages. But to divorce because of unhappiness - who ever heard of such a thing? Such indulgence, such naivete; as if ridding yourself of a spouse could erase the poison in your soul that was obviously responsible for your discontent. If I was ever unhappy, I never doubted that it was my problem.
I was seventeen years old when I met my husband to be. Feelings of anxiety and romantic excitement blended into each other until I could no longer tell the difference. I was unable to concentrate on anything he was saying, sitting there across from me at the dining room table while the adults listened in the next room, ears probably pressed to the keyhole. He was older than me, twenty-three going on twenty-four. He looked at me as if I was a child he could take care of. He made vague allusions to showing me the world. I took the bait.
To symbolize our agreement to be engaged, members of both families drank a l’chaim and joined their fists in the middle of the table in a gesture of momentary unity. We were bonded now, bride to groom, family to family. In the future, when I would break that bond to the shock of the entire community, the effects would be far-reaching. Fortunately for me, I wouldn’t be there to see them.
How I relished the experience of sleeping in in my own bed, in my own home for the first time. I had an immediate love affair with singlehood, with independence. It was fraught with the usual stuff of love affairs; dramatic, tearful fights and fantastic, joyful reunions. But perhaps the most surprising part of being on my own for the first time in my life at the age of twenty two was the complete absence of nostalgia or regret.
When Eli would plead with me to return, he tried every tactic in his book. He mentioned the names of people I had been close to, he deliberately evoked bittersweet memories of bygone times, he spoke of his concern for our son’s emotional health. His efforts never failed to bring tears to my eyes, but they also made me clutch my freedom even tighter. No one was ever going to take away what I had fought so hard to achieve.
I was relieved when Eli stopped bringing up the subject of getting back together. He began to seem more amenable to the finality of divorce, reluctantly agreeing to hire a lawyer of his own, something my lawyer had been insisting he do since the beginning. I promised I would go with him to get a get, a religious divorce, as soon as the civil divorce went through.
One day when he came to New York City to pick up our son for the weekend, he mentioned casually that my old friend Leah had gotten a divorce. I hadn’t spoken to Leah since I left suddenly two summers ago, but I remembered her as a fraught, exhausted mother of two by the age of twenty-one, whose skinny frame seemed to shrink further each day. She had been married to a crude bear of a man who liked to make chauvinist jokes in the presence of his wife while knocking back a few shots of bourbon.
Eli didn’t look at me when he continued; “She lives on her own now. People say she is very happy. I saw her too, it’s true; she looks so much more peaceful now.”
He didn’t say anything more, but he didn’t need to. It was clear to me that Eli was extending a miniscule olive branch; the acknowledgement that perhaps divorce could be a viable solution in some cases, that he understood I might have had a legitimate reason to break us up. I held my breath until I saw his tail lights disappear around a corner. I knew he wouldn’t be asking me to come back again. Knowing this, I felt the first twinge of nostalgia for a life that I finally knew was no longer mine.