Little did I know that I was about to dive into a scandalous book! Feldman must have predicted the type of reaction she would receive when she published her memoir. The Hasidic community has mounted a campaign to discredit her.
Feldman was born into an extremely strict sect of Hasidic Judaism, the Satmar sect, founded on the belief that the Holocaust was God's punishment for the Jews because they had forsaken their strict religious laws. Her father was mentally disabled or retarded (hard to say, because he was never diagnosed for fear of affecting his marriageability), and her mother, who had traveled from England to marry her father sight unseen, escaped the sect when Feldman was a girl. Consequently, Feldman was sent to live with her grandparents, who she is fond of, but she never really felt truly loved and accepted. She constantly chafed against the extremely rigid rules, unfair treatment of women, and rejection of secularism.
Strongly discouraged from reading or speaking English, she delighted in discovering Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, and JK Rowling. Hasidic schools for girls emphasize religious instruction over academics, so she felt grossly inadequately educated. When she finally met a teacher who will challenge her (even though she also sounds bordering on verbally abusive!), she was thrilled.
When she was married off at 18 to a man chosen for her by her grandparents, her body completely shut down. After receiving messages all her life that her body was a den of iniquity and temptation to men, she could not have a healthy sexual relationship with her husband. After much therapy (and the entire community knowing intimate details of their sex life), they finally consummated their marriage. When her son Yitzak was born, she knew that she had to get out. She enrolled in a course for adult learners at Sarah Lawrence and her world cracked open.
I really enjoyed this book, and Feldman is an inspiration. I cannot imagine what it would feel like to be trapped in a religion that believes that you are dirty for half of the month...and that you cannot partake in the same religious studies and community as men. (I loved the movie "Yentl" for similar reasons.) Or one in which your worth is determined by the age at which you get married, who you marry, if you secretly attend the mikvah (women do not discuss the mikvah with their husbands), and whether you wear a wig instead of your natural hair.
As I mentioned, the Satmar and other ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects are waging war on this book and Feldman herself (this pro-Orthodox Facebook group has been urging people to write one-star reviews). Just look it up on amazon and you'll see what I mean. What is most fascinating about this campaign are the petty accusations they are leveling at her:
- They claim she didn't accurately describe her mother's life and when she got divorced.
- They point out the existence of Feldman's younger sister and claim the whole book is a lie because she left her out. (Feldman says she chose to leave her out because she is a minor.)
- Clearly without reading the book, they say that she fabricated a story about a woman's murder (??) and that she said her mother abused her. There's nothing like this in the book.
- Feldman attended a strict Satmar school, but they say that she didn't admit it was not her first school. This is not true. She did say that she moved to a new school, but she doesn't say a lot about her former school. How is this important??
- Feldman tells a story about a Hasidic man who cuts off his son's penis after he saw him masturbating. She acknowledges that she doesn't know this for a fact, but it is what she hears (through her husband and his brother). The crime is not reported. This enrages the haters, because they say it's blood libel. Feldman admits that she was reporting the facts third hand. Still, it's concerning...that as well as another rumor she heard about a man who sexually abused minors, and the crime was covered up and not reported to the authorities!
- Some Hasidic women say she doesn't portray the life of Hasids accurately...and "I'm a Chassidic woman who runs her business and employs 30 people" or they say that she is attacking a religion that treats women with respect. Hmm...
- They claim that she has attacked her grandparents and has been ungrateful. (I did not see any of this. She writes fondly of her grandparents.)
- They say that all of her problems were due to growing up in a dysfunctional family.
What's fascinating to me in all this is that the Satmars only want to engage on the smallest points:, like where Feldman went to school and the technicalities of her mother's divorce, I've received not a word of protest about the conclusion of my review, which was, I thought, the most damning:Feldman also spoke of her disenchantment with the Satmars, not just for the way they treat women, but also the way they fight for power. Her grandfather told her that in Europe, no one would have dreamed of fighting to be called a rabbi. (They actually turned down the position because of their humility.) But Feldman's Satmar community was divided in half--each half supported one of the Satmar rebbe's sons for succession. And it was a bitter battle. When she first met her prospective husband, she's unsure of whether she can even consider the match because she's concerned his family supports the other son.
The real issue is sex. Not the act, but what it signifies --- male control of women. That old story. We see it in far too many places; dehumanizing women is a key component of fundamentalist cults, from hardcore Muslims to certain Republicans.
Men who oppress women --- they say they love them, but it seems more like they fear and hate them --- haven't been taught that sex is our reward for making it through the day. Like their women, these men have been sold the idea that sex is just for procreation. No wonder they feel like they're the ones who are oppressed.
There are claims in this book that Hasids have disputed. I can't tell what's true. But I'm sure of one thing: Men who can't live equally with women aren't worth living with.
Why didn't the Satmars take me on about the blatant sexism that oppresses both women and men in their community? I can only conclude this: It's a problem for Deborah Feldman --- not for them.
When it's discovered that the wigs worn by the Hasidic women have actually been made with human hair from India (from women who worship other gods), the rabbis claimed that it's the work of the devil, a punishment for the "promiscuity of their women." (Yes, it's all the women's fault. Always. See above...a religion that treats women with respect?)
Feldman wrote of her harrowing and humiliating first exposure to the Mikvah, the ritual bath house every woman must visit (and be inspected) before her husband can touch her. For 14 days after her period, she had to touch herself with white cloths twice a day to make sure she was not bleeding, for fear of "contaminating" her holy husband. That's right, women are filthy dirty. She also had a very difficult time bonding with her family members and her son because of the rigid rules and her anxiety about breaking them. It was only when she finally left with her son that she was able to develop a close relationship with him.
Although Feldman's memoir is not perfect (many characters and events seem to be given short shrift), it's her story...and it's told from her perspective. She writes about the things that mattered most to her. Her mother and father were not significant influences in her life, so they are largely absent. Now that she's left, she has a relationship with her mother. I found this book to be very inspirational, and one that I will hold in my heart for a long time.
Judaism, as with many religions, can be beautiful. But when religion is taken to its extreme (in Christianity, Islam, or Judaism), it perverts it to a love of the law over a love and compassion for others and for God.