'Unorthodox' Author Chronicles A 'Scandalous Rejection' Of Hasidic Life
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. The Netflix series "Unorthodox" was recognized this award season with Golden Globes, Critics' Choice and Independent Spirit Award nominations. The series, about a young woman who flees the restrictive customs of her Hasidic Jewish sect and an unhappy marriage, was inspired by the experiences life-true of our guest, Deborah Feldman.
Feldman grew up in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. Her family belonged to the Satmar community of Hasidim, known for its strictly enforced religious customs and heavily circumscribed gender roles. Feldman's memoir is a gripping account of her struggle to cope in a world where women could look forward not to education or careers but an early arranged marriage and years of child rearing. Her book, first published in 2012, is "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots." It's now available in paperback. She's also published a second memoir called "Exodus." An updated version will be released in August. She now lives in Berlin, where she's raising her son and working on a German-language novel. She joins us from her home in Berlin. Deborah Feldman, welcome to FRESH AIR.
DEBORAH FELDMAN: Thank you so much for having me.
DAVIES: You know, I want to begin by noting that there is a wide variety of religious practices among observant Jews in the United States and around the world. And we should just note that we're going to talk a lot about your experience, but it's not necessarily typical of all Jews or even all Orthodox Jews or even all Hasidic Jews. You grew up in the Satmar community of Hasidim. You want to just explain a bit about its outlook on the Holocaust and on Jewish ritual and custom?
FELDMAN: Well, I was raised by Holocaust survivors who chose to join the sect voluntarily after the war in New York. And they accepted all of these new rules and rituals that they would have only been vaguely familiar with prior to the Holocaust, because they felt, I think, prevailing guilt for surviving and that the Holocaust had happened as a punishment for the sins of the Jews in the diaspora - sins such as pursuing education and pursuing things like integration and assimilation and even sins like Zionism. And the only way to build a world in which a Holocaust would not occur was to take each and every traditional rule and regulation and interpret it to an extreme.
DAVIES: So describe some of the rules for women in the world that you grew up in. Some of them are Satmar-specific. Some of them belong to many other Jewish Orthodox communities. But just what were some of the rules for girls and women in your world?
FELDMAN: Well, like all religions we know today and all Orthodox Jewish groups, the rules begin by focusing to an extreme extent on the dress, comportment and behavior of women. So when I was younger, what was very obvious was all of the rules surrounding how I was to dress, which colors I was allowed to wear, what kind of fabrics, what kind of cuts and styles, how long my skirts had to be, how long my sleeves, how I was supposed to wear my hair, how loud I was allowed to talk or laugh, how should I behave if I were to walk on the street and another man would be walking in my direction, you know, how to step aside - so it was very much designed to make me as inconspicuous as possible. And you spend your entire childhood very aware of this - of the problematic nature of your female presence and of the necessity to negate it and to cover it up.
DAVIES: What kind of education would girls get?
FELDMAN: It's sort of like a mix of household skills, such as sewing, knitting, cooking and then learning every religious law that would apply to the household. So you would learn the laws of kosher, for example, or the laws of the Sabbath because you would need those in your work as a housewife and a mother. And then we'd learn some Jewish history, which was basically a list of all of the events involving persecution of the Jewish people. And then you would learn some Mussar, which is a kind of a series of lectures on character and how to build good character and how to achieve characteristics like humility.
And then you would have a little bit of secular education at the very end of the day when everyone was exhausted and irritable, and you were encouraged to not take it too seriously because it didn't really matter. It was just there because of absolute necessity. I did try to glean what I could from those few lessons, but it was difficult because if you appeared to care too much and if you appeared to do too well, there were so many suspicions raised against you about why you would prioritize something that the community clearly taught you was not only not necessary, but also threatening.
DAVIES: And you said that you end up with - you actually don't get a state-certified diploma. You're not considered a high school graduate under state law, isn't that right?
FELDMAN: That's correct. I still don't have one.
DAVIES: You were different, though, right? I mean, you had an interest in the outside world. You know, it's interesting that when you look at Williamsburg - I mean, it's right there on the edge of the East River, and you can look across and see the skyline of Manhattan. And it's really striking to me that, you know, thousands of people can grow up in a fairly socially isolated way in this city, which is the largest and maybe the most diverse city in the United States. You were kind of more outward-looking, weren't you?
FELDMAN: Well, I think prior to being outward-looking, I was certainly lonely and unhappy. I was already different by virtue of my circumstances, being raised by my grandparents instead of by my parents, having parents that were divorced, having a mother that had disappeared. I mean, there was so many strikes against me from the beginning.
DAVIES: Right. Maybe we should spend a moment on that, I mean, 'cause you were different in that way. You kind of were mostly raised by your paternal grandparents, right? And your mom left when you were young. And what were the circumstances of the family splitting up?
FELDMAN: My grandmother had 11 children, and they were pretty close in age. My father was the seventh son. And in this community, you marry arranged, and you marry in chronological order. So you would wait for your older siblings to be married off before you would marry someone. And if the siblings are close in age, what often happens is that if one sibling starts to get older, all the other siblings waiting behind him would get older as well. And in this community, getting older is very unattractive on the marriage market. We marry very young. And so at some point when my father was in line to get married, it wasn't going well, and he was already 23 or 24. And they couldn't find a match for him because everyone in the community already knew that he suffered from some mental problems, and nobody wanted to offer up their daughters.
And so my family ended up, out of desperation, purchasing a bride from a poor, broken family abroad. And she was not aware of any of the issues, and so she was essentially tricked into the marriage by being offered all sorts of bonuses like jewelry and an apartment and so on. And they married them off. And of course, my mother realized shortly after the marriage what was going on, but she was stuck. She had nobody who would help her, and she had no other place to be or go. And like me, she also didn't have an education, and she also didn't have the resources and the ability to survive in the outside world. So for a long time, she stayed in that world. She got pregnant. She had me. She suffered from severe postpartum psychosis, I was told. I don't know if this is true. Her state of mind and her health was very poor when I was a child and she wasn't able to take care of me, is what I was told. And so even before I lived with my grandparents, I was being shuffled around from aunt to aunt and cousin to cousin. And their marriage was deteriorating. And by the time I did move in with my grandparents, she was gone.
DAVIES: And you were about how old?
FELDMAN: I was about, I would say, 8 or 9 at that point. Prior to that, I had lived with an aunt and uncle about four blocks away. And I wanted to move in with my grandparents. I asked for that. I don't think it was ever the plan. I think the plan was to always keep me going from aunt to aunt - and I had many aunts, and I had many cousins - because everyone felt my grandmother was too old and that she had already raised her 11 children and sort of deserved the rest. But we had something, my grandmother and I. We had a very interesting, unique relationship that I think no one else really understood.
And I moved in with her. And I think that was the biggest comfort of my childhood. I think that that relationship sort of saved me. It provided me with the only positive influence in my childhood and the only feeling of security and, also, beauty. My grandmother was a very - almost a fairytale-like creature. She cultivated the only garden in Williamsburg. And she was musical. And she was creative. And she had, like, an - she had an eye for all the misunderstood and overlooked sources of beauty in the world. And she shared that with me. And I think that's what saved my childhood.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me introduce you. We're speaking with Deborah Feldman. Her memoir, "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots," was the inspiration for the Netflix series "Unorthodox." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RHYTHM FUTURE QUARTET'S "IBERIAN SUNRISE")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Deborah Feldman. She is the author of a memoir, "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots." It was the inspiration for the Netflix series, "Unorthodox," about a woman who leaves her life in an Orthodox Hasidic community. She has also written an additional memoir called "Exodus." And a new updated version will be out in August. So in Williamsburg, in the Satmar community where you lived, you grew up with your grandparents because your father had mental illness and mental problems, was not really part of the picture. And your mother had left that marriage. Your first language was Yiddish, right? Was that - was Yiddish spoken around the house?
FELDMAN: Yes. Yiddish was the primary language in my community.
DAVIES: Right. Now, Yiddish was the language spoken at the home. What were your grandparents' attitudes towards you speaking or reading English?
FELDMAN: Well, English was forbidden. So I wouldn't have been told much about English except that it was, like all things, not part of our community, evil and threatening. It could hurt me. But on the other hand, you know, in school, we would get this very minimal, rudimentary English lesson. And so I was exposed to just enough of the foundation to build on it. And so if I did sneak out and get myself a book in English, I was able to make sense of it and, you know, improve my vocabulary and my reading skills independently. And because there were no books available for me in Yiddish, and certainly not in Hebrew because women weren't really given real access to the holy tongue and the books written in the holy tongue, I essentially had no choice but to turn to secular books.
DAVIES: You know, it's interesting that you might have taken an interest in other parts of the outside world, like, you know, popular culture and rock music. Instead, you managed to sneak books in English. You kept them hidden underneath your mattress - right? - so your grandparents wouldn't find them. And you spent a lot of time reading classics of literature - right? - "Little Women," "Pride And Prejudice." Can you just describe the effect that had on your thinking and development?
FELDMAN: Well, first off, I think that I turned to books and not to rock music because I probably would have found rock music very threatening, very frightening. Even with books, I chose books like "Little Women" and "Pride And Prejudice" because I felt safer with those books. They felt familiar enough. You know, the world of "Pride And Prejudice," where marriages are arranged and women's value is determined by their status as a wife and mother, it's very similar to where I come from. It doesn't feel so foreign as to be threatening. The one time in my adolescence when I was exposed to, I guess, a portion of pop culture - in the chapter where I discuss accidentally seeing the film "Mystic River" - I was nearly traumatized by that experience because I had no idea how to understand the film. I had no system of references for it. And so I believed that everything in the film was a true indictment of the outside world and that my community was right, that the outside world was evil and that people did constantly commit crimes like murder and theft willy-nilly. I didn't really know how to understand the outside world. And for a long time, even after I left, I experienced the outside world as terrifying.
DAVIES: As you got older living in the Satmar community, the idea of marriage comes into focus. Let's talk just a bit about the steps in arranging a marriage. You said a lot of your life was sort of managed by your aunt, who you call Chaya. And she finds a matchmaker, right? And how are you first introduced to the family of the man that you've been chosen to marry? Walk us through how it works.
FELDMAN: Yes. So I'm 17 years old. And my family has been researching for months. And they've been working, you know, without my knowledge for months, meeting with the family and sort of deciding everything in advance. And then, at the very last minute, it just boils down to the physical acceptance of my presence, right? I need to be seen. I need - it needs to be ascertained that I am not too ugly to be married. And so I am told to go to the supermarket. And I am told to dress up in my best clothes and to carry my beautiful new handbag because, suddenly, I've been showered with beautiful things because I am now of age.
And I go to the supermarket in these beautiful clothes and carrying this handbag and feeling so grown up. And my aunt says to me, just, you know, walk along the aisles and pretend you're looking for something. And I'm like, why do I do this? And she says, because your future mother-in-law will now watch you. And so I have no idea what my future mother-in-law might look like. But I know there is a woman in the shop. And she's come here to see me. And she's come here to pronounce me worthy or unworthy. And if you are rejected, that rejection is crushing. It goes into your resume.
So before you even think about what the acceptance might mean, you know, marrying into that family, marrying the son of this woman, you just think of that rejection, the prospect of the rejection and how crushing it can be. And I think this is so clever the way that this gets set up because everything about the way the system works makes you value that arranged marriage. It makes you want it because the alternative is so much worse. And so I'm walking in the supermarket and just hoping against hope that some person that I've never met looks at me and thinks I pass muster.
DAVIES: Right. And you eventually figure out who it is. I mean, there're not that many people (laughter) giving you such a careful look, right? So - you know, it's interesting that you got very little notice that this was going to happen, this trip to the supermarket where important - (laughter) an important evaluation of you would occur. Similarly, after that, when the mother-in-law apparently told the matchmaker, yep, she's acceptable, there's a meeting of the families at which you will finally meet the man that they have been - that's been chosen for you. Again, you get very little notice of this. Just get your best stuff on. We're going over to Aunt Chaya's house. Just describe what happens in this encounter between the two families and you and your future husband.
FELDMAN: At first, once everyone arrives, they all sit around a large table. And they make small talk. And the young man and woman in question mostly sit in silence and sneak glances at each other. And then eventually, after enough small talk has been made and they assume that we feel relatively comfortable, they leave the room. They go into the next room. They close the door almost completely but leave it open a crack because the law requires that. And we are left to our devices for about 20 to 30 minutes. We have to make conversation. I'm told that the man has to start the conversation. So I stay silent. He takes a few moments to come up with an idea of what to say. And those first few moments are awkward.
But eventually, he speaks. And it turns out he's quite nice. There's really - there's nothing about him that would make me skeptical or fearful. He's relatively attractive. He seems intelligent. He seems kind, sensible. Like, I only notice, with relief, with tremendous relief, that he has good qualities. And, you know, you're thinking the whole time, it could be so much worse. It could be someone who's so fundamentalist, they won't even look at you even though they're supposed to be looking at you to decide if they're going to marry you. You could be with someone who is selfish or who is pigheaded or diffident. I mean, there's so many ways that things could go wrong. So in that moment, I'm just thinking, well, there is nothing I can pinpoint that's bad.
DAVIES: And so then, the deal - it's not like, then, you retreat, and you have a week to think about it, right? I mean, you...
DAVIES: ...You make a decision. And it's indicated literally by a nod to your aunt. Is this right?
FELDMAN: Yes, because it's already clear - by the time that you're told that you're going to see this man, it's already clear by seeing him you are engaged to him because the consequences would be so drastic if you weren't to become engaged. You would lose so much value on the market that whatever would come next would be much worse, certainly, than whatever it is that could be bad about this person. So you know even before that it's going to be engagement. And that's why you feel such intense relief in this moment when you realize your partner isn't obviously terrible. And, yes, there is that look and the nod. But it's just perfunctory. Everything has already been prepared. You know, the alcohol is already on the table. And as soon as the meeting is done, there is a verbal agreement. And we all drink to it. And it's over. There's no going back.
DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Deborah Feldman. Her memoir "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots" was the inspiration for the Netflix series "Unorthodox." She also has a memoir "Exodus." And an updated version will be appearing in August. She'll be back to talk more after a short break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. My guest is writer Deborah Feldman. Her memoir about growing up in the Satmar Hasidic sect in Williamsburg, Brooklyn - and eventually leaving it - is the basis for the Netflix series "Unorthodox." Feldman's book, which is now available in paperback, is titled "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots." When we left off, we were talking about how marriages were arranged in her community. When she was 17, her future husband was chosen for her - a man she'd never met. They had a brief conversation at a meeting arranged by the families to confirm their engagement, and they were married seven months later. I asked her about the wedding night.
You have had marriage classes at which things are explained to you about sex, right? How much did you know about physical intimacy before you got to these marriage classes?
FELDMAN: Well, it is a big part of the series, and I believe it is the heart of the book. And I believe that at the heart of my story is a story about a woman's body. And, you know, I think of it as a very physical narrative. And being told your whole life that your body is the source of sin and evil and that it must be denied and covered up and then being told that, oh, by the way, your body is also the key to reproduction, and reproduction is the holiest and most precious goal of our community, and in order to reproduce, you need to use your body, and you need to use it on behalf of the community, exactly the way the community tells you - this is a very intense shock.
But certainly, I was told shortly before my wedding that I possessed reproductive organs and that my partner possessed complementary reproductive organs and that somehow we would manage to turn those organs into a baby. And it was never explained clearly to me, so nobody ever actually used the scientific words for anything. Nobody actually explained how it happens. But they said to me, in your body, you have a hallway, and at the end of the hallway, there is an altar, and your partner will leave a sacrifice, you know, or an offering at this altar. And a door will open to the source of all life, and there, like, the seed will be planted, and a child will be - like, so abstract. So abstract.
And this abstract language is terrifying because you're very aware in this moment that you have no idea what's happening, and you desperately want to understand because you know you need to understand in order to make a success of this one most important thing in your life - becoming a wife and mother. But you're terrified to ask questions because you're terrified of asking the wrong questions. You're terrified of seeming lewd or lascivious. And so you don't because you're being told that everyone else learns it exactly the same way and everyone else manages to do just fine. And you think, oh, your partner will know more. You'll get married, and he'll know what to do.
DAVIES: So your wedding night comes, and the marriage is not consummated that night. You simply are unable to have intercourse. And the next day, the day that you actually get your head shaved - because you're going to have to have to wear a wig - and your mother-in-law drops in to this. And what happens?
FELDMAN: I'm sort of happy to welcome her into my brand-new domain, right? I'm putting out the nice dishes that I have and the nice napkins. And I want to, you know, serve her coffee and, you know, play house. And she immediately says, I know that it didn't work. And at the beginning, I'm just too surprised to understand what's happening. Like, what does she know? How does she know it? Does she assume it? And she explains that her husband told her that my husband had told him that we had attempted to consummate the marriage and we had failed at doing so.
And before this moment, I thought this is normal. Lots of couples probably have this the first night. You come home at 5 a.m. You're so tired. You don't know what you're doing. Like, so we'll just try again the next night, right? Like, at this point, I was still quite relaxed. And then she came in, you know, with this stony face, like this is the end of the world. Your marriage isn't consummated. You're not married. Like, you're living in sin, basically, because you are not married.
And it was this big deal. It was this, like, Halakha problem, which is, like, a problem of Jewish law that had to be decided in the Jewish court, and, you know, Jewish advisers and rabbis had to be called in to pronounce their verdict on us. It was humiliating, shameful. Everybody knew within a day that we hadn't consummated, that we hadn't managed it. And I was ashamed to walk on the street because I had no idea who knew and who didn't.
DAVIES: And of course, this information came from your husband, who immediately told his family. And that's a practice that goes on. You end up getting medical exams because this goes on quite a while. I mean, you continue to have difficulty. And you get advice from sex therapists and rabbis and hypnotists and a biofeedback specialist. You know, with some years of distance and perspective, do you understand what was going on?
FELDMAN: I think that I understand it as best as I ever will. And I think that my husband at the time was in a very comparable situation. I think that we both grew up denying our bodies, not developing any kind of relationship with them, not understanding how they work or how they might work for us, not understanding how to enjoy them or how to understand their signals. And when you're just so disconnected from your body, sex doesn't work.
And sure, maybe it could work in some cases anyway, but a lot has to go well. You know, you don't know this person. You don't even know if you like them. Everything has to function. And you need emotional and mental involvement for that to happen. And then maybe that's possible with time. Maybe two young people could still have a chance to get to know each other and build some trust and maybe discover their bodies in that moment, even though they've always been disconnected from them. But as soon as the community gets involved and puts this sacred pressure on the couple, it must be done; otherwise, your holy duty has not been fulfilled. That chance goes up in smoke, and it doesn't end well.
In my story, I do manage to get pregnant at some point but at the cost of great pain. And, you know, my family considered the problem solved, but it was far from solved.
DAVIES: You do have a son. And then you move out of Williamsburg to a town north of New York City called Airmont, where there's a large Orthodox community. There's a remarkable moment you describe that I have to ask you about, when you're six months pregnant, and a rabbi comes from Jerusalem who's coming through, and he's known - he's very well-known. He's a Kabbalist from this mystical strain of Judaism. And it's seen as something terrific if you can get a session with him for his insights. You do this, and then he tells you something that he thinks could be a problem in your marriage, which is really striking. You want to share this with us?
FELDMAN: He says that the matchmaker is resentful because she didn't get paid enough. And I think this sounds strange to you because it's so foreign, but actually, where I come from, there are all these superstitious ideas that, you know, people can put the evil eye on you, which is something you find in a lot of traditional cultures. And so one of the first things a Kabbalist will always look for when there's a problem is who could possibly cast an evil eye on you.
And since I had told him about the problems in the beginning of our marriage, even though at that point I was already pregnant, he said to me, you know, all of your problems are probably because the woman who arranged your marriage is angry that you didn't give enough money. And it turned out in this case to be true (laughter). But, you know, at the time, I was grasping for straws. I would have loved to believe that it was that simple. It wasn't that simple. We ended up giving the matchmaker more money. It didn't fix any problems. But of course, there is this superstitious belief that if you can just - if you can make somebody happy and you can kind of get rid of the evil eye, everything will be, you know, A-OK. It wasn't.
But something - you know, something else happened at that session where, you know, the Kabbalist basically hinted to me that I would end up leaving the community. He implied it in - you know, in a symbolic way. But he told me that I would die and I would be reborn, that I would go my own path and that my child would be instrumental in this. And he gave me a number. He gave me a number nine. And I ended up having this terrifying and insane car accident on midnight, September 9, 2009, where my car just - like, the front tire ripped, and it flipped over three times, and it was torn apart in pieces. And I ended up emerging without a scratch, even though, like, when the ambulance came, they put me in this, like, brace 'cause they were so scared that I had, like, severely damaged myself.
And I ended up seeing this moment as, like, an impetus to leave because I felt that God wasn't punishing me with the car accident, but rather showing me that I could survive anything. And he gave - it gave me the courage to leave the very next day. And because of this, like, him telling me this number nine and, you know, being - dying and being reborn, I ended up reading it as a prediction, that he predicted that I would leave my old life and be reborn into a new one. But maybe I'm just still very superstitious.
DAVIES: How does the number nine figure into the car accident?
FELDMAN: Well, it occurred exactly at midnight on September 9, 2009. So it's - so on my phone, you know, when I crawled out of the car, it was 9-9-09. And, you know, you get chills. It - I mean, it's a coincidence, right? But it creeps you out.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you once again. We are speaking with Deborah Feldman. Her memoir, "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots," was the inspiration for the Netflix series "Unorthodox." We'll be back to talk more after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with writer Deborah Feldman. Her memoir about growing up in and eventually leaving a Hasidic sect in Brooklyn was the basis for the Netflix series "Unorthodox." Her book, which is now available in paperback, is "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots." She has another memoir called "Exodus," and an updated version of that will be appearing in August.
You know, in the series "Unorthodox," part of it's kind of your story and part of it's an imagined story. I mean, in the series, the character who's based on you, whose name is Esty, makes a daring escape from Brooklyn, the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, to Berlin, where her mother lives. That's really not your story. You went from Brooklyn to this community in - called Airmont in north of New York City. And eventually, you took a class at Sarah Lawrence College and got interested in writing and had more and more contact with secular people.
Eventually, after this terrible car accident, you decide to leave the community. It had to be very tough. You had a son. You didn't have, you know, a degree. How did you manage to put together the resources and wherewithal to make a life?
FELDMAN: Well, I mean, I don't know if what I had in those first few years could rightly be called a life. I mean, I would call it survival or hanging on to the very edge of survival. I left on faith. I think it's important to say that because where I come from, faith is everything. And when you leave this community, you also leave on faith 'cause that's how you've been trained to take risks. I sold my jewelry. I sold a book proposal. I had enough money to make a start. And I got very creative later, when the money ran out. I would sublet my apartment for a few weeks and go stay with friends. I donated my eggs at some point to survive.
So the first few years were really just about survival. It was about day to day, month to month. It was about getting custody of my son. It was about finding my footing, you know? The very basics.
DAVIES: It is remarkable that you sold a book proposal (laughter) 'cause, I mean...
FELDMAN: It is.
DAVIES: ...People spend years trying to do this.
FELDMAN: I agree.
DAVIES: I think probably you had quite a literary education, self-taught. And you had a powerful story to tell, didn't you?
FELDMAN: I started by blogging. I think that was how it had even came to be because an agent or - no, a publisher saw my blog and referred to an agent, and an agent offered to help me. And I got 25 rejections from publishers before David Rosenthal at Simon & Schuster called my agent and asked me to come in for a meeting. And after meeting me, he made an offer - a very, very generous offer, considering the era and, you know, the fact that I was unknown and so young and had experience. And so we went to publication with a very small print run. And yet the book exploded. And it took - I mean, I remember everyone around me just pondering, like, how to explain it, how to explain that the book did explode against all expectations. And I remember my agent being like, oh, well, you know, maybe there is something very American about your story after all, just like the story is about women running away from the Mormon communities and the Amish communities and the Mennonite communities. Like, maybe running away from religion is the quintessential American story. So all of a sudden, I wasn't this niche, like, weirdo. But all of a sudden, I was the ultimate American. I was the person that ran away from the religious sect. And if you look at the landscape of America, there is something - there's something very national about that.
DAVIES: What - how did the community react to your departure? I'm sure there was a custody issue with your son.
FELDMAN: I had very carefully observed the trajectories of other women who had made attempts to leave prior. And I had learned from those attempts. So I made myself pretty much out of reach. I got rid of my phone. I was hiding, in the beginning, at friends'. And I kept changing my address. I tried to be very hard to find in the beginning. The primary source of disapproval was about custody, as you say. The community hired lawyers. And they were going to go for full custody. Even if my ex-husband didn't want it, they were going to fight for it on his behalf. And I ended up using the publicity around the book, as my lawyer had advised, to get custody.
In fact, that was the original reason I came up with the idea to write the book because my lawyer had said to me that she couldn't give me any useful legal advice, but she could give me, you know, nonlegal or extralegal advice, which was find a way to get sustained public attention because in her experience - and she had similar experiences in the '80s with other cases - she felt that the only thing the community was really afraid of, the only way to cause it to back down was to shine a spotlight for a sustained period of time on the community's actions.
And that's exactly what I ended up doing. On the day of publication, I had the paperwork signed 10 minutes before I went on national television with Barbara Walters on "The View" because I basically said if they wouldn't sign the mediation agreement that we had been negotiating for so long, I would tell America that I was going to lose my child. And they ended up backing down for exactly that reason. It was a very clever calculation on behalf of my lawyer. And it was only after the book was published that the pursuit from the community became very intense. And that's when I felt the full force of that rage.
DAVIES: So what form did that rage take? What did you experience?
FELDMAN: The rage took many forms. Some of it was organized. Some of it was more impulsive and spontaneous. I had - I got a lot of threatening hate mail from my family and from my community. My family told me that they had already prepared my grave, and they couldn't wait to dance on it. All I needed to do was to commit suicide. There were people discussing on online forums in Hebrew and Yiddish what would be the Halakhic permission to kill me. They were waiting outside my apartment. You know, they were publicly speaking out against me, trying to defame me and discredit me.
So it really was happening on all levels. And I felt at that time that my safety was threatened. And that was when I decided to leave New York City. And I basically decamped to the far reaches of the countryside. And I kept my address completely private. Nobody knew it. And I basically hid out for a few years after the book was published until the furor died down. But I didn't actually feel fully physically safe until I moved to Berlin because here I was out of sight, out of mind.
DAVIES: It must have been painful - people that you knew all your life to have no contact with.
FELDMAN: It was very painful to no longer have contact with my grandmother. On the other hand, I do mention in the book that my grandmother developed dementia already before I left and that she had trouble recognizing me shortly before I left. And I think that made it easier. I think I might not even have done it if that had not been the case. But it was almost like I had already lost her. And so I could deal with that loss, whereas contact with the rest of my family members - losing that wasn't so difficult. I mean, when you get these letters telling you that your grave is ready, and they want to dance on it, I mean, that's a confirmation that this is the kind of family you don't need. If anything, it sort of cemented my decision and made me feel like I had really done the right thing because you have to get away from family like that.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Deborah Feldman. Her memoir, "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots," was the inspiration for the Netflix series "Unorthodox." We'll talk more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with writer Deborah Feldman. Her memoir about growing up in and eventually leaving the Satmar Hasidic sect in Brooklyn was the basis for the Netflix series "Unorthodox." Her book, now available in paperback, is "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots."
How did you end up settling in Berlin?
FELDMAN: I came to Berlin the first time in 2013 as part of an extensive trip to Europe to retrace the steps of my grandmother before she came to the States. And I wasn't impressed with the city at the time. I was doing Holocaust tourism, as they call it, and so I didn't really get to know Berlin as a city but just Berlin as a tourist site. But I ended up coming back for a completely different reason a year later, and I stayed in an actual neighborhood, and I met real people. And I ended up realizing that Berlin has this very strange status of being a home for runaways. And bizarrely enough, I ended up meeting a lot of people who grew up ultra-Orthodox in Israel and in Europe and in the States who had reinvented themselves there. And so it felt like the only place in the world where I even had a chance of reinventing myself. It is a city that doesn't require you to have roots the way other cities might, and it doesn't really require you to belong. The way that you belong in Berlin is by being a misfit.
So I remember being very attracted to it then and having a friend of mine who grew up Orthodox telling me that I could easily get the German passport because I had German-Jewish ancestors. And, immediately, I also felt that the language was so familiar. You know, Yiddish is basically a variant of middle-high German, and I just could so easily transition into the language, which felt both new and old at the same time. And then there was this factor of how important Holocaust remembrance is here and how it's something that everyone is involved in all the time. And it felt like, finally, I was in a place where I wasn't the only one carrying memory into my heart, you know, that I wasn't alone with it because in America, I did feel like it wasn't something people were much preoccupied with, whereas in Germany and in Berlin, it's omnipresent.
And I felt almost, like, a sense of relief in that, like I could almost let my burden down, or I could share it with others, and I wasn't alone with it anymore. And so it just - I think for all of these very diverse reasons, it felt as much like home as a place could ever feel for me. And this has proven to be true over the years. So I do feel more comfortable here than anywhere else.
DAVIES: You know, it's a very disturbing, unsettling world, as described in your book, that you grew up in. And, you know, we - there are many tens of thousands of women in the United States who are part of the Hasidic community who don't see, you know, their lives as prisons of oppression. And I'm wondering, are there parts of the traditions and practices of your youth that you do see value in? Are you proud of it in any way? Do you feel - still feel connected to it?
FELDMAN: I think I very much do feel connected. And I think that evidence for that is in the novel that I'm currently finishing in German, which draws so much from my own childhood experiences and from my culture but also from the history of Yiddish literature and Yiddish poetry and the history of the Hasidic diaspora. I mean, every - all of my inspiration comes from where I come from, all of my material and my resources, both in my creative work and my expression of myself but also, like, the building blocks of my character, everything I like about myself, everything I appreciate about my abilities and my skills. It comes from this experience. So I couldn't be the person I am, and I couldn't be living the life I'm living without all of this. I don't regret anything. I don't ever feel sorry for myself. I feel really grateful that I was given these experiences but also that I was given the resources to process them and to turn them into something that is, for me, golden.
DAVIES: Do you observe any Jewish ritual today?
FELDMAN: Very sporadically when the mood strikes, when my son decides that it's fun but not at all compulsively.
DAVIES: Don't belong to a synagogue? Was your son bar mitzvahed?
FELDMAN: I asked him if he wanted to, and he said he just wanted to have a party. And that's actually what most secular Jews do anyway, so it's like, all right, we'll have a party.
DAVIES: Sounds like you're happy.
FELDMAN: I am. Isn't that crazy?
DAVIES: Well, it's quite a journey, yeah. Deborah Feldman, thank you so much for speaking with us.
FELDMAN: Thank you for having me again, Dave.
DAVIES: Deborah Feldman's memoir "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots" was the inspiration for the Netflix series "Unorthodox." She's also written a second memoir called "Exodus."
On tomorrow's show, we talk with New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose about how the growing use of automation is eliminating jobs and sophisticated algorithms based on artificial intelligence are affecting our lives in unseen ways. His new book is "Futureproof: 9 Rules For Humans In An Age Of Automation." I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. We had additional engineering help from Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.