Deborah Feldman: Finding Jewishness outside of Satmar

Deborah Feldman grew up with the Satmar Hassidim. When she and her husband had trouble consummating the marriage, they moved out of Brooklyn to a more liberal Jewish community. There she learned to drive and secretly began attending classes at Sarah Lawrence University. Eventually, she chooses to leave her husband and the Orthodox community in which she grew up.

Although her family responded to her leaving with anger and even hate mail encouraging suicide, for Deborah the leaving was a rebirth, a necessary step in recognizing her authentic self. In a recent interview with JSpace she says:

There’s a huge difference between faith and identity. What I rejected was more of a culture. The culture taught that faith is about fear of God, which I never really swallowed, because I don’t really believe that if there were a God he’d want to be feared. When I rejected the culture, I guess I rejected the faith that they taught.

I felt very much that I was reclaiming the Jewish identity that I had never had when I left, because I got to be a part about the mainstream Jewish community, and I got to learn about Israel, and I got to meet a very diverse group of Jews. If anything, I feel more Jewish now, because when I was growing up I felt alienated, and I felt like an oddity and an Other in that Jewish community.

She has recently written a book about her childhood and the decision to leave.

The book was released on February 14, 2012. She told Jspace that despite secular media’s promotion of the book as a tell-all, her main goal was to tell the story of her relationship with her grandmother and the struggle she felt between loyalty to those she loved and her own need for self-determination. In a video produced by her publishers, she says:

I hope to show people that even though it’s really scary to go right up to the edge and jump off, if you can do it it opens up this whole new world. So if you have the courage to give up everything, you can achieve everything. And you’ll never be in danger of losing yourself in the process. That’s what I’ve learned and that’s what I want to show other people: that bravery pays off.

But she also acknowledges leaving is not for everyone. One has to weight the circumstances because neither world is perfect. Each has its own complex challenges.

The book was written during the first six months after she left. As such it gives us a glimpse into a journey in process.    Chana from The Curious Jew observed:

Something I found odd but interesting was that despite her claim to want individuality, at the end of the day, what Deborah really wanted was to conform to something else. She wasn’t very good at conforming to the world she was born into, but she expresses deep relief and happiness at being able to conform to secular America…. While Deborah realizes by the end of her work that she can keep aspects of her past with her, and even be proud of them, I think this deep-rooted wish to conform and not to stand out is one of the lingering negative aspects of her upbringing. It seems to me that Deborah still has more steps to take and strides to make in reclaiming her individuality – so that she can be different from her society but not totally in step with American secular society, either.

Female role models have played a key role in this journey. Below is an interview with Barbara Walters on ABC. Barbara Walter’s own story played a pivotal role in Feldman’s life..

Going forward, she would like to help other women in transition. She would like to volunteer with Footsteps, a group that helps those who leave Haredi communities adapt to mainstream American life. She also dreams of setting up a shelter to help other women, perhaps using some of the proceeds from her book. She also hopes to continue writing. It appears she has a promising future. The Jewish Journal, which previewed the book before its release Jewish Journal praised the quality of the writing saying:

Through a narrative voice that is almost hypnotic, she puts you immediately in the center of her chaotic world. Flashes of adult wisdom seem almost to compete with her childlike sense of bafflement, and we watch this young author struggle fearlessly to find herself on the page.She is unlike so many other authors who have left Orthodoxy and written about it; her heart is not hardened by hatred, and her spirit is wounded but intact.

You can find out more about Deborah Feldman and her book at her website:

Categories: To Be a Jew | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Deborah Feldman: Finding Jewishness outside of Satmar

  1. Jennifer

    I have you find any website or blog backing up any of Devorah Feldman claims..

  2. I felt sad reading this. Mainly because I have come from the other direction. From being a secular Jew to orthodox. I have never felt so free, and believe that within Judaism the only limitations to growth are theones you impose on yourself. Ultimately all Deborah is talking about is the non-spiritual world of culture, whether it is the enclosed space of Satmar or the illusory autonomy of the secular and individualist approach to life. A Rav once said to me that sometimes people have to leave in order to return on their own terms. I sincerely wish this for Deborah herself.

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