Hasidic Hell: Married at 17, Girl Runs From Her Orthodox Roots

Deborah Feldman writes about leaving the orthodox world of Satmar Jews.

February 8, 2012, 1:50 PM

Feb. 8, 2012— -- At only 17, Deborah Feldman was unprepared for her arranged marriage to her orthodox Jewish husband Eli, a man she had only met for 30 minutes.

Like other young brides in the Hasidic tradition of Brooklyn, N.Y., she was whisked away to the "marriage teacher" and told about the "holy place inside each woman."

"I hear her describe a hallway with walls, leading to a little door, which opens to the womb, the 'mekor,' she calls it, 'the source'," writes Feldman. "I can't imagine where an entire system like that could be positioned."

Feldman, who had never even been allowed to look down there, had no idea she had a vagina and says she suddenly made the "shocking discovery" that she was designed for sex.

Now 25, Feldman has written a powerful memoir -- "Unorthodox: the Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots" -- about her escape in 2006 from the cloistered and misogynistic world of New York's Satmar Jews.

A rebellious and curious child, Feldman said all her life she waited for someone to speak up for her. Even now, "speaking out is tough," she told ABCNews.com.

She wonders what makes her path and culture "any different from the Amish or fundamental Christians or Mormons, who closet themselves away."

Every aspect of Feldman was tightly controlled for fear of being on "God's blacklist," according to her book, including incessant physical inspections of body and rules about her behavior.

Groomed to be pious, she spoke in Yiddish and was banned from going to the public library to read secular English books. She never got a traditional education.

The ultimate betrayal was that she and her fumbling new husband were unable to consummate their marriage for a year because she developed a painful psycho-medical condition called vaginismus, common in victims of sexual abuse.

"It was the most humiliating year of my life," said Feldman. "[The in-laws and family elders] were talking about it day after day. I was too terrified to leave the house. I couldn't keep a bite of food down."

"I was whittling down to nothing and there was no end in sight," she said. "And I lost my spirit."

After psychotherapy and anxiety medication, Feldman finally gave birth to a son on May 2, 2006 and planned her exit from the only community she had ever known.

She began "sneaking out" to apply to local colleges and jumped at a chance to get a scholarship for writing classes at Sarah Lawrence College. Then the words just poured out of her.

After that, her life as a good Hasidic girl "unraveled slowly," said Feldman, and she left her husband at 23, relying on the support of faculty and friends she met in college.

Feldman grew up in Williamsburg, an enclave of ultra-conservative Hasidism, nestled between modern neighborhoods of hipsters and wealthy mommy bloggers.

The Hasidic community -- two rival sects -- sits in stark contrast to the cultural liberalism and diversity of New York City. A major player in the city's commerce and a powerful voting block, they have their own police and fire departments, as well as ambulance and bus service, where women ride in the back.

Placards in Yiddish and English "instruct [the community] to vote like the rabbi says," according to Feldman. "We don't think for ourselves ... whoever the rabbi says is good for us."

The Satmar sect had its roots in Hungary and Romania during the Holocaust. A rabbi from the border city of Satu Mare, saved from extermination, immigrated to America and formed a sect named for his hometown.

His followers returned to traditional life, speaking in Yiddish, and even opposing the creation of Israel, believing the genocide had come as punishment for assimilation.

"More important, though," she writes. "Hasidic Jews focus on reproduction, wanting to replace the many who had perished to swell the ranks once more."

The growth of the Hasidic community is seen as the "ultimate revenge against Hitler."

And at the age of 11, Feldman was told there was "no greater curse than the curse of childlessness."

Feldman was raised by her grandparents, Bubbi and Zeidy -- both Holocaust survivors. She lived by strict rules set by men and enforced by the elder women, dictating modest dress and shaved heads under wigs. Women were not allowed to worship with men.

Feldman's mother abandoned her as a child and her mentally ill father floated in and out of her life. Later, her mother, banished by the community, revealed she had left because she was a lesbian.

Feldman hid books under her bed, for fear her elders would suspect her growing curiosity about the world.

"They were my only friend -- they saved me," said Feldman, who was drawn to the heroines of Louisa May Alcott and Jane Austin.

"They were dealing with the stuff I was dealing with," she said. "The modern heroines, I didn't understand at all."

Feldman said she was "mystified" growing up how men – most of them in "shul," studying the Tora -- earned a living to keep themselves in $2,000 mink hats and the finest clothing from Saks Fifth Avenue for women.

"My grandfather had no bank account in his own name -- only nonexistent nonprofits -- I would see every time he wrote a check."

As she approached her late teens, the family had plans for her – to marry a good Jewish man and to have babies. The arrangement, she writes, was made by Eli's family and her cruel, yet ambitious, Aunt Chaya.

She was subtly molested during a cleansing bath -- a mikvah -- to ensure her purity. Later, she contracted a case of orbital shingles in the same ritual, "fulfilling one of God's commandments."

During the wedding ceremony, her face was completely covered by the veil until the breaking of the traditional glass.

"I was laughing under that veil," she said. "I could not keep straight face."

After her marriage, "no man aside from my husband is allowed to glimpse even a quarter inch of my natural hair," she writes. But Feldman refused.

The inexperienced couple floundered the first few nights in the marital bed and soon not only the in-laws, but the entire community knew she was still a virgin.

She was ashamed and in pain, trying to satisfy her husband and her family. The anxiety caused her to lose weight.

"What a curse it is to not feel safe in one's own body, when everything else is going wrong." Feldman writes. "My body should be the one thing I can rely on; instead, it has become my worst enemy, undermining my every effort."

A friend confesses to her that she was sent to the hospital with a ruptured colon, after her new husband "went into the wrong place."

After finally losing her virginity, Feldman subjected herself to a humiliating monthly ritual under the prying eyes of her new in-laws and aunt.

Like other Hasidic women, she was obligated to have sex during the first two weeks of her menstrual cycle, then after her period, required to lay twice-daily cotton squares on her bed to ensure she was "clean" enough to resume her marital duties.

The turning point came with the birth of her son.

While she was pregnant, a kabbalist from Israel made the prescient remark: "With the birth of your child, everything shall unravel. The truth will surface. You shall come to know yourself through your son."

"I saw my future all mapped out," she said after the birth. "He would go to Satmar yeshiva and be just like his father. I freaked out at the knowledge that I have the responsibility and guilt of putting everything I saw as my oppression into an innocent person."

As her anxiety escalated, Feldman lied and told her husband she wanted to take business classes so she could supplement his meager income as a copywriter for a local Hasidic newspaper.

She said she "made a beeline" for a college degree to connect her with the outside world. Feldman had been a star English pupil and had gone on to tutor students.

One class at a time, she began to speak out and "open my mind." She began to wear jeans and high heels for the first time in her life.

Finally, she moved out and lived for two months with friends, consulting with top lawyers to make sure she didn't lose custody of her son.

Since 2006, Feldman hasn't seen or spoken to any of her family.

"I get letters," she said. "They are threatening -- 'Your grave is ready. When you are ready to kill yourself, let us know."

Still, in a strange way, she misses her home.

"Nothing is ever black and white," said Feldman. "So many things I remember fondly, but nothing worth going back for."

Today, she lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and is working on two more novels. Her son, now nearly 6, attends a Jewish private school.

Feldman said her husband was "humiliated" after the divorce and his family cut him off.

"He was angry and was convinced in a few years I would come back," she said. "He begged me ... it was definitely not a clean ending."

Now, Feldman says her husband has "changed a lot" and loosened some of his religious views. "He started wearing jeans."

The couple shares joint custody, she said. "We try our best to maintain somewhat of an amicable relationship, which is best for our son. Our worlds are not as different now."

She has slowly developed a relationship with her mother, a public school teacher.

Even after time has passed, she cannot go back to Williamsburg without facing judgment.

"Everyone recognizes me and knows me," she said.

Feldman has a sequel to write and dreams one day of setting up a shelter for other women who want to leave Williamsburg and get help.

"I wanted someone like me when I was younger," she said. "I just wanted somebody to stand up for me."

"I'm scared and I worry about being public," she said. "On the other hand, being public is my safety net. I guess I want to be a trailblazer."

"If it has to be me, let it be me," she said. 'But I won't be the last."

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