By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Feb 22, 2012
Decades ago, when I was reporting a story on New York sex clubs for Playboy, the proprietor of one club showed me a special door that provided Hasidic rebbes a discreet exit when their congregants showed up to be serviced.
I admire that foresight. “Below the belt, all men are brothers,” Henry Miller wrote, but really, it just wouldn’t do for a sect that preaches the kind of chastity for women that the Taliban would approve to have its holy men cavorting with loose women --- some surely shiksas --- in full view of the members of their sect.
I thought of this hypocrisy when I dropped in at The Corner Bookstore to meet Deborah Feldman, who has just published a memoir of her 23 years in the Satmar sect. In this unlikely venue --- the bookstore is on Madison Avenue at 93rd Street, a chip shot from New York’s posh private schools and apartments that sell for eight figures --- the writer and her friends were bracing for trouble, for Feldman is about as popular in her former community as Eichmann. She gets hate mail: "R U ready to CROKE?” There’s a web site called Exposing Deborah Feldman as a fraud. The comments on her YouTube videos are vile. So a few robust guys showing up to disrupt an author event --- not out of the question.
I can see why her former community might be peeved by “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.” The author says she is nervous about being out in the world with a controversial book, but you’d never know it from watching her on “The View.” In her first TV appearance, she’s eloquent, appealing and just emotional enough. A potent mix --- the next day, women snatched up every available copy. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
What’s so shocking? Well, everything. Her father is brain-damaged. Her mother is English, a hothouse flower, in no way suited to an arranged marriage to such a damaged man. So…she leaves. And leaves her daughter behind. That’s scandal #1.
Her grandmother isn’t up to the unexpected job of mothering: “Her whole family was murdered in the concentration camps, and she no longer has the energy to connect emotionally with people.” Left to herself, Deborah becomes a reader of “forbidden” books; she connects with Roald Dahl’s characters, “unfortunate, precocious children despised and neglected by their shallow families and peers.”
There’s no room for nonconformity in this community. “I had to believe everything I was taught, if only to survive,” she writes. And what was she taught? In the slow-track classes for girls, nothing very academic, for a girl could realistically have no higher destiny than marriage at 17 and motherhood a year later.
Can a Hasidic girl be alone with a man? She says: Not even if other women are present. She says: Doors must be kept open. She says: No singing aloud. Blouses buttoned at the neck, skirts to the floor.
Deborah never quite submits. She warns the man who will become her husband: I’m not easy to handle.” She’s already told us that she’s “hungry for power, but not to lord over others, only to own myself.” It will take her years to leave, but you can see the jailbreak coming a hundred pages away.
Emotional distance from a husband --- that's not limited to Hasidic marriages. It’s the sex that will shock readers unfamiliar with the ways of the Hasids. On their wedding night, Deborah's husband is unable to penetrate her. She gets shingles in the ritual bath. (A friend has a nightmare story; her husband entered her in the wrong place and ruptured her colon.) Fifteen pages later, Deborah is no longer a virgin. You’ll be relieved to read that, but you won’t cheer.
There’s not much joy in Deborah’s romantic life. Hasids believe that women are unclean 14 days a month --- the days of their period, plus another week. For seven days after she stops bleeding, a wife must check herself twice a day with a white cloth handkerchief. If she’s not still spotting, she goes to the bath and is pronounced clean. Which means she gets to sleep with her husband when she’s most fertile and he’s randy as a goat.
There are other disconnects along the way, but as in so many things, 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. No doubt girls all over Brooklyn are buying this book, hiding it under their mattresses, reading it after light’s out --- and contemplating, perhaps for the first time, their own escape.