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

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

ByABC News
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.