'Writing secured my survival': Meet the Berlin-based author of 'Unorthodox'

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'Writing secured my survival': Meet the Berlin-based author of 'Unorthodox'
Deborah Feldman and her dog in Berlin in March. Photo: DPA

Deborah Feldman was 23 when she fled her ultra-Orthodox home in New York with her son, sparking outrage in the closed Jewish community, her dramatic story inspiring the Netflix hit "Unorthodox".


In 2012, more than two years after her escape, Feldman published her memoir, "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots", which on Thursday went on sale in Spanish, published by Lumen, a division of Penguin Random House.

The book's Spanish release follows the huge success of the Netflix mini-series, released in March, starring Israeli actress Shira Haas.

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The story is loosely based on the life of Feldman, who was born in 1986 into the Hasidic Satmar community in Brooklyn.

An ultra-Orthodox sect, the Satmar Hasids are characterised by their extremely strict religious observances, their rejection of contemporary culture and opposition to the modern state of Israel.

In this Yiddish-speaking environment, rules govern every aspect of life, from food and hygiene to clothing, hairstyles, books, and even sexual relations within marriage.

Feldman in 2016. Photo: DPA

Born to a father who was mentally ill and a mother who was a lesbian, Feldman felt the community's rejection from the outset.

"I was a product of that scandal," she told journalists in an online interview. "I was treated already as if I were not one of them."

Forced to stop reading

Feldman, who since 2014 has lived in Berlin with her son Yitzhak, says it was her love of reading which made her dream of another life, secretly choosing books in English -- which was forbidden.


"Reading was an escape, it was an access to very far-out worlds.

"I had a fantasy then of being a writer... an impossible dream," says Feldman, who is now 33 and has since written a second memoir called "Exodus".

Married off at 17, she was forced to stop reading because she didn't immediately fall pregnant. "I had my books taken away."

The idea of leaving first came to her in hospital after giving birth when she was 19. What she wanted was to divorce her husband and keep custody of the baby but she was warned off the idea by a lawyer who told her: "Your chances are zero".

Another lawyer later suggested the only option was to go public with her story, so she began to write it all down.

"Unorthodox", she says, was "written under the pressure of knowing that this is the only thing that is going to get you your freedom and secure your survival, and the survival of your child.

Written in the present tense, the memoir was a huge success but it enraged the Satmar community.

For them, she had "crossed a red line" and turned into an enemy, "someone like Hitler," she says.

The fact that she was a woman, writing a non-fiction book about leaving the community, was seen as "offensive... very full of chutzpah," she said, using the Hebrew term for "audacity".

Not only did the book raise awareness of her situation and help her win a divorce, but it paved the way for others: after its publication, "many people left the community".


'No sense of self'

Set in an extremely secretive world, the narrative focuses on questions of identity for a young woman in a community where gender roles are rigidly defined from an early age.

But in such a context, issues concerning the vulnerability of women and minors are rarely, if ever, debated.

"Judaism has always claimed to be too vulnerable to have conversations about injustice and discrimination within its community," she said, in a nod to centuries of persecution culminating in the Nazi Holocaust.

"Ultra-orthodoxy is a problem for all of us," she said -- one which "the Jewish community needs to confront" while also being "a topic in Islam (and) even in Evangelical Christian sects".

Haas in 'Unorthodox'. Photo: DPA

After her escape, she spent the first three years with barely enough money to survive, fearing that like others before her, she might become suicidal or suffer mental health issues.

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She also had to rebuild her own sense of identity.

"You have no sense of self... your community has always defined who you are," she said, with those stripped of family, rituals, language and beliefs, facing a "true crisis".

But with a young son who needed her, she didn't have much time to dwell on such issues, which ultimately pulled her through.

"I credit my son for surviving this period."

By Álvaro Villalobos



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