The women who say strictly no to Chasidism

Deborah Feldman

Deborah Feldman

"Everybody's read it," the woman says in a confiding tone. "We're all talking about it. Of course, much of it is made up."

Talking to this member of one of New York's strictly Orthodox communities, it becomes clear that her view of Deborah Feldman's tell-all memoir about Satmar Chasids is not positive.

It is hardly surprising. Unorthodox, which follows Feldman from a regimented childhood to her rebellion against a loveless arranged marriage, presents a world where no one, women especially, can question the status quo.

Yet several writers have done just that, shedding light on a lifestyle that originated in Satu Mare, Romania. The founding Satmar rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum, escaped to the US during the Holocaust and set up a community in Williamsburg, New York, that thrives, its critics say, on isolation and blind devotion. Feldman, a 25-year-old mother who has spent much of this year discussing what she has called "the scandalous rejection" of her roots, describes being ill-treated by relatives, abandoned by her mother and forced to hide secular books under her bed. Her memoir is a gossipy account of an adolescence where the facts of life were kept a mystery and religious rivalry was rampant.

It is a world painted with more subtlety by Anouk Markovits, whose novel I am Forbidden tells the story of two Chasidic women growing up in Paris after the Holocaust. One, Atara, rejects the lifestyle, the other stays true to it.

The French-born author, who herself fled an arranged marriage at 19, says the novel is by no means autobiographical but that it is "deeply infused with personal experience".

"I felt I understood this world intuitively, because it had once been mine," she says. "I did want to explore why people submit to such rigid rules - it seems so crazy. Jews today have many options - why choose to live the way they had to live 200 years ago?"

Feldman's memoir started as a blog - she is one of many Chasidic writers to find an outlet in the anonymity of cyberspace. The community she describes is one where rebellion itself is unfathomable.

The young Markovits - like Atara - was aware she did not want to follow her parents' religious lifestyle. "But I didn't know how to live differently without damaging people around me.

"Often, by the time [rebels] realise they want out, they have had children and risk losing them [if they leave the community]." She adds that they face an uphill battle even in the secular courts because they are poorly educated, "whereas the community steps forward and supports the parent who stays."

For Feldman, everything was a scandal in waiting, from an innocent friendship at camp, to accepting chocolate from a non-Orthodox child. Her and her husband's inability to consummate their marriage became a talking point among her neighbours which threatened to damage her reputation.

For the majority of the people who reject strict Orthodoxy, education, or the lack of it, is the key. Enrolling in university was an epiphany for Feldman - she recalls being asked about Yiddish poetry by a lecturer and being shocked that a non-religious person could be better schooled in her heritage than she was.

In Markovits's book, Atara struggles with the prohibition on women studying religious texts. Markovits says she never felt "chosen" and could not accept the "Manichean world of good and evil" that was presented to her. "That's how it began, my refusal to accept that as a Jew, I might be superior. Later, literature gave me a glimpse of the inner lives of people outside, a glimpse that confirmed my earlier intuition."

She was lucky even to meet people outside her community. Her book follows the Chasidic community from the 1940s to today, a period in which, she believes, it has become even more dogmatic and extreme. "After the war, women wore skirts to just below the knee; today they have to wear skirts four or five inches below," she points out. "I know of adolescents who grew up in Williamsburg and never went into Manhattan - across the bridge - until they were of marrying age." The result is a generation with "no direct experience of someone who differs from them".

Although she hoped that reading her novel might "open up options" to women in similar circumstances, she knows that even accessing it would be beyond the reach of most Satmar women. So would browsing blogs on the subject in a community where, she says, "forbidding access to the internet is so important that some ultra Orthodox leaders authorise transgressing Shabbat to destroy smartphones".

Feldman has been the subject of criticism, including a website called Deborah Feldman exposed. But she says she is no longer afraid of the community that once held her in such a tight grip. "I have let go of a painful past and I am living a glorious future," she says.

As for Markovits, she believes "people in ultra-Orthodox communities today are even more cut off from the world".

"I have heard of a small contingent of people who stay in, but no longer believe, or do not believe in quite the same way," she says. Whether books like hers and Feldman's will help them plot a future remains to be seen.

Last updated: 10:59am, August 8 2012