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Unorthodox: The Satmars v. Feldman & Kornbluth

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Mar 06, 2012
Category: Memoir

You do not want the Satmars on your case.

I learned this the hard way the other week, when I reviewed Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, Deborah Feldman’s account of growing up in this ultra-religious community. 
 
I praised the book, and a bunch of you bought it, but my praise and your purchases were of no great import — Feldman had appeared on “The View” that week, and after her lovefest with Barbara Walters, there wasn’t a copy to be found in America. 
 
As I write, the book is on the New York Times bestseller list. I don’t believe the Satmars consult this list — I had a conversation with a woman from this community, a highly-placed executive, who did not recognize the names Bernstein or Woodward — and I now understand they would not consider that ignorance as a failing. For the Satmars, as I get it, there is nothing worth having or knowing that is not the spiritual or cultural property of the Satmars.
 
Their grievances with Deborah Feldman are two. First, she left the community. Second, she wrote a book.
 
These grievances are connected. She could not have written a book like this if she had stayed in the community. Because she left the community, her book is full of lies.
 
And then there’s this idiot, this shallow whore of a reviewer. Because that’s what I am to the Satmars: a fool for believing Feldman. Worse than a fool, really. “I’ve checked you out, and you write gossip,” a Satmar woman told me. ”You’re no different from Barbara Walters.”
 
She had any number of other insults, but that — that hurt my feelings.
 
I’ve spent considerable time since my review ran here and on The Huffington Post in what passes for dialogue with the Satmars, and I think it’s worth taking a day from my usual business to share the gist of those conversations.
 
In her book, the Satmars told me, Deborah Feldman says her mother left her marriage when her daughter was very young; in fact, they said, Feldman was a teenager when she left.  And, in her book, Feldman writes as if she’s an only child; she makes no mention of her younger sister. She is thus a liar, her book is a fraud, Simon & Shuster “got taken for a ride,” and if I were any kind of responsible writer, I would drop everything and hike out to Brooklyn, where I’d meet many women who are thrilled to live in this community, and, finally, know the truth about Deborah Feldman.
 
Harsh charges, especially given the cast. Not Deborah Feldman, who I met briefly and will probably never see again. But I’ve known her agent for more than three decades, and I’d bet my hands on her integrity. And her editor at S&S championed Cara Hoffman’s So Much Pretty, which I seemed to think was the bravest American novel of 2011. If those two women were in league with a sociopath… well, I really didn’t want to finish that sentence.
 
So I did two things. I pressed Feldman’s agent and publisher for a response to the Sarmars’ charges. And I paid close attention to what the Satmars were saying and how they were saying it.
 
The response was slow in coming, but Deborah Feldman has now weighed in with a long blog post, in which she admits she has a younger sister and discusses her mother’s troubled marriage. I sent it on to several of my Satmar correspondents. I got one response:“You are sticking up for a lost cause, my friend.”
 
I find Feldman’s explanation reasonable. Her book is a memoir, not a deposition taken under oath. Memoirs are selective and impressionistic; we don’t need and don’t want the name of the writer’s second grade teacher. Or, for that matter, a 900-page snoozefest. The Satmars don’t get this, and so they’d like nothing better than to marshal more “evidence” and litigate this forever. (Examples: here and here and here.) 
  
No, that’s not quite right. There is something they want more: Feldman’s submission.
 
If you have read Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements — and if you haven’t, it should be the next book you should read in this sick joke of an election year — you know what I mean when I say the Satmars aren’t just a religious sect. They’re a movement. They’ll never be a mass movement; their practices are too radical, so they’re stalled at the stage of a cult. But they have all the characteristics:
 
All mass movements … breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single hearted allegiance. All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of mind.
 
What sort of mind? A mind that needs an Us and Them. A mind that needs allegiance to a cause that knows the future. A mind that needs, above all else, to be right.
 
The Satmars would never see themselves in this description. A cult? That’s nuts.
 
Well, as a wise man said, “No one joins a cult — they just forget to leave.”
 
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:
 
… 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.
 

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: They see it as a problem for Deborah Feldman — not for them