Books explore ‘vast chasm’ between Williamsburg ultra-Orthodox and mainstream Jews

By Elaine K. Alexander, Special to the Light

One of a number of enclaves of the ultra-Orthodox, Satmar Hasidim is in Williamsburg, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. Two, voluntary, Satmar exiles have recently published books about this insular community. 

Deborah Feldman—married at 17, a mother at 19 and still a mid-twenty-something—has written “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots: A Memoir” (Simon & Schuster, 272 pp. $24). Anouk Markovits, who abandoned the Satmar community at age 19 — (judging from her recent publicity photo that was some 20 years ago.) — has written “I Am Forbidden: A Novel” (Hogarth, 302 pp. $23), which is sensitive to the beauty, security and also potential psychic agony in this fundamentalist society.


Author Feldman explains, [as with the Lubavitcher Hasidim], the Satmar name comes from a Jewish community nearly extinguished by the Shoah: Satu Mare (Saint Mary), Hungary. Some of the practices that set the Satmars apart: Yiddish-speaking homes in which English is shunned as an impure tongue, distinctive dress, fastidious adherence to kashrut (dietary law), bans on American and Western culture (radio, TV and even Sholom Aleichem are taboo — only religious books and didactic/preachy Yiddish texts are approved for reading), gender-segregated and limited education. Girls in Williamsburg do not earn an accredited high school diploma. The educational mission, as a character in Markovits’ novel explains, is to stimulate the soul, not the mind. 

It seems true for Satmar practice generally what memoirist Feldman points out about their dress: it signals “insiders and outsiders…[of] the vast chasm” between them which is helping to re-populate a robustly, expanding, self-sufficient and ghettoized society. 

The ultra-Orthodox folkways of Williamsburg are based on a combination of religion and custom. For instance, male dress—payess/sidelocks, the black coat and shtreimel, a donut-shaped hat made from mink tails, worn on Shabbat and other special occasions, and costing two thousand dollars and up—is an Old World export.


The Rebbe rules 

Satmar life is also driven by ad hoc rulings from the Rebbe, Williamsburg’s spiritual leader. For instance, when Feldman was a teenager, the Rebbe decreed that it was immodest to wear knit garments next to the skin or thick beige stockings without seams—lest they be mistaken for nude leg. During Feldman’s girlhood, the dress code was reinforced by teachings such as the one about the saintly-modesty of Rabbi Akiva’s wife who stuck pins in her calves to keep her skirt from clinging to her (subsequently bleeding?) legs.

The Rebbe also exerts influence because he is consulted on all dimensions of daily life. In traditional Orthodox practice, man and wife interact in strict accordance with her monthly cycle. During her impure days it is forbidden to touch, or even hand things directly to one another to avoid awakening the husband’s carnal desire. A couple may resume a physically, intimate relationship after the woman goes to the mikva/ritual bath (by which time she is likely to be ovulating). Before that she monitors her progress towards purity with a series of white cloths. If there is any confusion about her vaginal emissions, the husband takes the cloths for inspection to the Rebbe.

The Satmar Hasidim are particularly divided from mainstream Jewry by their anti-Zionism. The Satmars believe, writes Feldman, “that the genocide of the Jews [came] as punishment for assimilation and Zionism.” (A debatable concept, because the American Jews who were least affected by the Holocaust, were also the most assimilated.) For the Satmars, Feldman adds, “The idea that we could bring about our own redemption from exile [is] preposterous! Faithful Jews wait for the messiah; they don’t take up guns…and do the work themselves.”


Memoir spurs notoriety for author

Since “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots: A Memoir” has been published, Feldman has appeared as a guest on “The View,” of which Barbara Walters is one of several co-hosts, and book sales may have been boosted by notoriety within the Satmar community. Her ex-husband admits to being hurt. (Likely because of the comments about the canine quality of his “libidinous” advances.) 

Other Satmars accuse Feldman of lying. They say she was not, as she claims, abandoned while very young by her mother and mentally-challenged father citing an ongoing marriage which produced a previously, unmentioned, younger sister. However, Feldman did well to gloss over the ins and outs of her family life. What is clear and important is that, for a significant period, through marriage at 17, she was raised by her ultra-Orthodox grandparents. 

Feldman’s story includes questionable judgment, pettiness, materialism, narrow vision, naïveté and some mediocre writing. When she meets her future sister-in-law, she reports thinking, “Who’s going to marry you, looking like that?” There is an unsettling photo of a “liberated” Feldman in jeans and pointy-toe heels, slumped on a bench with two fingers in the air—around a cigarette. She also writes about a “$100 lunch” at a vegetarian restaurant (a lot of beans for beans!) and notes the ”conspicuously gentile-looking” waiter. Conspicuous to whom?

 I am willing to chalk these things up to youth and inexperience while applauding the memoirist’s bravery in cutting herself loose from her entire prior life. And despite flaws, she has written a riveting account from what might as well be the far side of the moon.


Markovitsnovel shows compassion 

Anouk Markovits was raised by her Satmar family in France. When she was a young woman, her family sent her to New York for an arranged marriage with a young Satmar man she had never met. Shortly after arriving, Markovits left the Satmar community and sought training and later employment as an architect. An earlier novel was written in French; this is her first English novel.

Markovits’s story rolls back to Nazi persecution in Transylvania and the controversial survival of the Satmar Rebbe, Joel Teitelbaum, through the special and nearly exclusive protection of Rudolph Kastner who was later charged with Nazi conspiracy. Then the narrative evolves into an aching love-story between Mila Heller and Josef Lichtenstein whose marriage, by barrenness and religiosity, is doomed. The writing and plot is somewhat uneven, medically fuzzy, but often poetic and psychologically insightful. Importantly, Markovits brings to the table affection and understanding for the men and women who remain in the Satmar community and try to balance piety and humanity.