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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Deborah Feldman I was a Satmar Hasidic Jew - but I broke free

Mother and son: Ms Feldman with her son, now five. After she gave birth, she knew that she she did not want to raise her child into the strict Satmar community

Deborah Feldman, 24, lives a modern life, different from that of her Hasidic Jewish parents from Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Memoirs of a Hasid: Her old life far behind her, Ms Feldman has enjoyed the support of College friends. It was a car crash that finally tipped her over the edge

Family front: Deborah Feldman, pictured with her ex-husband and son, when she lived as an ultra-conservative Satmar Hasid in Williamsburg

New life: Deborah Feldman renounced her Hasidic upbringing, criticising its oppressive attitude to women. She has since penned a memoir about her old life in New York's Williamsburg

Married at 17, Deborah Feldman, was a good Hasidic wife — until she decided she could no longer be a part of that community. Now, she’s an independent young mom

* Sexual Assault At 12,
* Married At 17,
* Divorced At 23,
* One woman's explosive revelations of life in an ultra-conservative Hasidic household


Sitting in a cozy Upper East Side restaurant, 25-year-old Deborah Feldman stashes her copy of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” in her handbag and greets the chef, who’s come out to say hello. Clad in a miniskirt, semi-sheer sweater and cowboy boots, this confident, stylish young woman seems every bit your typical New Yorker. Then she begins to talk about her background.

Until two years ago, Feldman was part of the ultra-conservative Hasidic Satmar community based in Williamsburg. Abandoned by a mother who left the faith and a father who was mentally disabled, she was taken in by her grandparents, who brought her up to be a quiet, obedient, God-fearing woman who would get married in her teens and start a large family right away.

But Feldman had other plans.

In her memoir, “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” out Feb. 14, she chronicles her oppressive upbringing and arranged marriage.

At 23, emboldened by classes at Sarah Lawrence College, she left her husband and the community for good — taking her 3-year-old son with her.

Feldman recently discussed her experiences with The Post over (very nonkosher) crabcake sandwiches and Key lime tarts: “I think I love eating out more than most people,” she says, “because I was never allowed to do it. Women aren’t allowed to eat out.”

THE POST: From a very early age, Hasidic girls are expected to wear skirts and shirts that  cover them down to their wrists and ankles. But during your adolescence the law became even more restrictive.

FELDMAN: When I was 11, they changed the clothing rules. You used to be able to wear a long-sleeve, high-neck T-shirt. Now you can only wear high-neck blouses, with woven fabrics, because their theory is that woven fabrics don’t cling. T-shirts show boobs.

If you had a curvy body, then there was something wrong with you. No matter what I wore, the school principal always had a problem with me, because I’m a little Kardashian-esque and I developed young. My principal would walk by and slap me on the ass and be like, “Your skirt shows too much.”

Every summer, starting when you were 8, you were sent to a Hasidic summer camp upstate; can you describe the bathing suit you had to wear?

Picture this really shiny nylon fabric and thick, floppy, long sleeves, and pants covered with an extra layer of material to make it look like a skirt. Ridiculous. I remember the sound it would make when the girls walked around the pool with the wet bathing costumes, the slapping sound against the backs of their thighs. So awful.

When I met him, I warned him. I said, “I have my opinions, you might not be able to handle that.” But he was famous for getting along with everyone. So he said, “No, I can handle you.” He wasn’t ready to handle me at all! After we got married, and I had my books in the house, he didn’t mention them. He tolerated them. But he would tell his mother everything.

Satmar women are expected to shave their heads and wear wigs once they get married. But you didn’t keep up the first part.

I only shaved my head for a year. I just got tired of seeing my head like that in the mirror. It felt really depressing — like an embarrassing secret. I have a hard time cutting my hair now, because I remember how long it took to grow it out the first time.

The subject of sex was a total mystery to both you and your husband. What’s it like to embark on a sexual relationship when you have no idea how it works?

No one ever said the word “sex,” or even “vagina,” to me. We had no clue. We were like, “It’ll work out.” It never worked out. There is an actual rule that you learn before you get married that you are never supposed to look at genitalia. You can’t look at yours, and you can’t look at his. It’s always dark. There’s no hole in the sheet, but it’s pitch dark and there’s no looking and there’s a lot of fumbling around, and you’re wearing your nightgown rolled up to your waist. There’s no boob touching. Mine were totally wasted! There is no oral sex. After the first time, you have to call a rabbi and he asks the man questions — did this happen? And he declares you either unclean, or not yet consummated. Once you’re consummated, you’re unclean, because you bled. So after the first time, your honeymoon is a no-sex period.

For two weeks every month, he can’t touch you. He can’t hand you a glass, even if your fingers don’t touch. He has to put it down on the table and then you pick it up. Secondary contact can’t happen. If you’re sitting on a sofa, you have a divider between you. It makes you feel so gross. You feel like this animal in the room. If there’s a question about your period, you take the underwear and put it in a zip-lock bag, and give it to your husband. He takes it to the synagogue and pushes it into this special window and the rabbi looks at it and pronounces it kosher or nonkosher. It’s so disgusting.

You say there were many ways in which you felt like your safety was not protected, because of the Hasidic reliance on faith.

I remember always being in the front seat of a car when I was a kid, without a seat belt. It comes from this idea that you have so much faith that you don’t really have to do anything because God will protect you. It’s a very lackadaisical attitude toward health and safety. No one ever took me to a doctor.

I was taught to believe that outsiders hated me. That if I talked to someone [non-Hasidic], I risked getting kidnapped and chopped into pieces. Never, ever talk to an outsider. Not even a policeman. Which is why what happened to Leiby Kletzky [the 8 year-old Borough Park boy who was brutally murdered in July; a fellow Hasid is currently facing charges for his murder] could have happened to me. I was taught to trust a Jewish person over someone wearing a cop uniform. If I got lost, to find a Hasid. There was this old man on my street who, every day on my way to school, would be sitting on this bench, and would call out to me and offer me candy. I told my grandfather, and he said, “Well, he’s older than you, so you have to talk to him out of respect.” The guy was, like, a pedophile. And we were taught to respect him.

What was your feeling about the recent news story about the segregated B110 bus in Williamsburg?

I rode that bus countless times in my childhood. It never bothered me to ride in the back. To be honest, I didn’t want to sit anywhere near those men. Those men are scary; they’re not trained in civility. They’re terrified of what would happen if the genders weren’t segregated. They think of lust as this uncontrollable, wild impulse.

That’s what was going through my head [at age 12] when [a sexual assault] happened in the basement with my [male] cousin: It’s obviously all your fault and not his, and you need to keep quiet about it.

As a girl, you attended a single-sex religious school where you say girls were not encouraged to learn English well. But you would sneak books like “Anne of Green Gables” and “Pride and Prejudice” right into the classroom!

I did some brazen things. I got this cheap paperback, I think it was “Little Women,” and tore off the covers so you couldn’t see what it was, and I would insert it in my Hebrew textbook. People thought I was weird.

There’s an explicit rule about women not reading the Hebrew text of the Talmud. I went and bought a section. I was worried about the cashier ringing some alarm under the desk! I was like, “It’s for my cousin. I don’t even know what it is.”

How and when did you finally decide to leave?

I had been taking classes at Sarah Lawrence College — one was this history class, where the teacher was exploring memoirs. It brought to life this idea that one person can make history. And I thought, “I might be able to make a mark or have my voice heard.” And I had all these people around me there who supported me. I asked my college friends, “If I leave, would you really have my back? I have no one.” I have this one friend who said, “I promise, you will never fall because I will always be here to catch you.” And she kept her promise. I left on the basis of that promise.

And then I got into this really bad car accident on NJ 80. My tires were thin, and I was driving fast. My car flipped over three times. I was convinced I was going to die. And there was no way I was going to waste another minute of life.

My husband rushed to see me in the hospital. I’d been talking to him about changing those tires for six months, and he wouldn’t. I said, “Our son could have been in that car.” When I left the hospital, I told him, “I’m going to go stay with my mom for a bit when I get out.” I packed up my stuff while he was at work, and I went to stay with my friend from Sarah Lawrence. While I was there, I was like, “This is it. I’m not going back.”

Knowing that your grandparents and other relatives might well be ostracized on your behalf if you left, did that make it harder to leave?

It wasn’t an easy decision for me. I was thinking, “Can I make myself live this life for their sake?” And I couldn’t. I don’t want to cause them any pain. But I couldn’t justify staying for them. Now, I am a pariah. It’s over. I’ll still go to Williamsburg, to have brunch with [non-Hasidic] friends and walk around. No one recognizes me.

You divorced your husband, who still lives in the Hasidic community in Airmont, NY — what is your arrangement regarding your son?

We have primary modified joint custody, which means I get the last word. My five-year-old son spends every Shabbat with his father. My ex-husband is so much less religious now. He cut his beard short, he wears jeans. It’s because there’s no room for divorced people in the community, so you’re relegated to the fringe. People ask if I would get back together with my ex. It’s a reasonable question; we were married. But I never chose to be married. He’s a stranger to me. I just happen to have a child with him.

How did your relatives react to the news that you were publishing a book?

My family started sending me hate mail, really bad. They want me to commit suicide. They’ve got my grave ready. [“R U ready to CROKE [sic]” reads one e-mail she shared with The Post. “We are most definitely going to rejoice in your misery,” another declares.]

So I’m very careful. My doorbell doesn’t have my name on it. But I think the book is a protection in this situation, because [my relatives] are terrified of having their actions become public. So it’s an insurance policy, in a way. There’s a reason why Hasidic people in New York get away with so much. There’s this sort of tacit arrangement: They don’t do anything the media can criticize.

Over the past 10 or 20 years [the Hasidic community] has gone from being extreme to being ultra-extreme. They’ve passed more laws from out of nowhere, limiting women — there’s a rule that women can’t be on the street after a certain hour. That was new when I was growing up. We hear all these stories about Muslim extremists; how is this any better? This is just another example of extreme fundamentalism.

Do you see some signs of hope now, because outside influences are trickling into the cloistered community?

The neighborhood has changed drastically since I left. The hipsters came in the ’90s. And computers hit in a big way. Smartphones. Internet access. Now you can’t keep people from accessing information. It’s weakening the community’s hold over their own. It used to be that one person would leave, and then another 10 years later. It was always a big-deal scandal. This year, I went to a Thanksgiving dinner for people who are trying to get out, hosted by an organization called Footsteps, which helps people adjust to mainstream society. There were 350 people at this dinner. They had to rent out a loft in SoHo.

What’s your dating life like now?

Part of me is like, “I can’t date anybody. No one will [understand] me. I have a kid and I’m 25.” But there’s a man I met in New Orleans. He has his life there, and I have mine here. On paper, we don’t make sense at all — he’s Irish Catholic, he grew up in the backwoods. But he’s the only person I ever met that never made me feel weird about my life. He saw me for me. I thought that was impossible.

76 comments:

  1. Another tzibruchene neshama, not knowing what hit her, getting back at her family and her past with a vengeance.

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    1. And being assaulted by a cousin is right with G-d how?

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    2. Damn she is messed up. Nebech

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    3. Damn she is messed up. Nebech

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    4. You people are sick. Truly. No wonder she had to escape. Good for her! She is so much better and stronger than sheep like you.

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    5. good for you. A great book and i am so happy for you.

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  2. she can only blame herself, being an orthodox jew doesn't mean you can't have the best sex, it depends what type of person you are, and what type of relationship you have with your spouse, nebech on this girl

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  3. This woman's a nebach...We need to daven for people like her.Poor child of hers will grow up with some shygetz hick as a father figure. Theres a median shes clearly not capable of finding.

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    1. Shame on you for your cruelty to this woman you don't even know.

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    2. I DO know her, she is 'screwed up' big time.

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    3. She has no clue what life is all about

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    4. You are the one who is screwed up. There is nothing Godly about your attitude.

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  4. One can hardly blame her for rejecting such a backward upbringing; everybody deserves a proper education and the chance to make their own choices in life. It is sad that the oppressive practices of her community, which have no basis in Halacha and depart from the true mesorah have caused her to leave the four thousand year old Jewish traditions and ethics for the empty decadence of modern pop culture.

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  5. You can't blame her. I'm a frum Jew and I believe everything is okay in moderation. Once you start to go extreme you're asking for stuff like this to happen.

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  6. She actually looks better in the frum pic

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    1. To each his own I guess. If you think a woman looks better when she is a disrespected, subservient slave then that says a lot about you. She is a gorgeous, smart, strong woman who has brought shame on no one. Those who tried to control and squash her spirit are the ones who should be ashamed.

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  7. Is it right for her to publish a photo of her husband?
    If she is so righteous she should take into account him bieng shamed!!!

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    1. she is a smart and wonderful woman, hope she eeps tat strength

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  8. Pure sensationalism, nothing in this article is newsworthy. the Post must be desperate if they print this hogwash.
    A girl grows up in an unstable home, gets married, and ecides to drop her faith and family life, all because she simply wasn't interested. That's all folks.
    She says nothing exceptionally horrific about her frum sheltered upbringing, except for the fact that she disliked it. Her marriage wasn't a disaster, she doesn't even imply that, just wanted out. She had the option of joining a more lenient community, just like her husband did after their divorce. Oh, but then she couldn't have eaten crabcakes. [yawn].
    Now she is trying to make headlines for her heroic cop-out, and the liberal media thinks every time someone follows their hearts desire, they must be upgraded to celebrity status. Yipee doo.

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    1. %120 right. Thats the situation here. Don't worry she'll come back soon (like all others)
      ישראל אע״פ שחטא, ישראל היא

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    2. %120 right. Thats the situation here. Don't worry she'll come back soon (like all others)
      ישראל אע״פ שחטא, ישראל היא

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    3. There is a halacha though, that someone who tries to "badmouth" yidden is considered a "rodef". A rodef does not have to be save if their lying on the street dying. It's not my own words. It's halacha. Feel free to inquire.

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    4. Freedom of choice - take that away & you don't have your own life. This woman found the courage to shake off the chains that were imposed upon her & to make her own choices. Bravo!

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    5. Bravo is right! The ridiculous justification of these posts is so sad. A woman breaking free of the shackles of oppression is ALWAYS newsworthy.

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  9. That is a great story and shows that a woman can rise over silly exagerrated 'rules and regulations'

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    1. Well, we live in America and everybody can and is entitled, what's is so great about this story?

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  10. Shame on all the Yidden shaming her. What does her life have to do with you that you feel so threatened by a stranger? By the way your criticisms are a chillul hashem because everyone can see and read it and all the lingo is Googleable, the trash talking just makes your community look even worse. The decadence of pop culture only seems that way to you because you have no frame of reference for it--the woman didn't leave because of pop culture, she left because she was getting an education and realized she didn't want to be frum anymore. And "hick shaygetz," as if non-Jews are trash. I'm sure her hick shaygetz has had more education than you do. She's just telling her truth, you know it's true, and you are the type of person she's getting away from so you have only nasty things to say. Good for her.

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    1. Yay finally a normal response!! But those people you're talking to won't understand, they're stuck in a very small world and can't understand that there are different kinds of people all over the world living all kinds of happy and healthy normal lives. Even though it's not just like theirs....Maybe happier and healthier!!

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    2. Agreed, thank you for finally posting a response that makes sense. It's amazing how threatened that community is because she chose to speak her own truth.

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    3. Excellent comment El Majiu. You obviously know what you're talking about as well. I applaud this brave and beautiful young woman!

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  11. dear devorah be strong they are going to try to take dirt on you i do beleive everything you said because i went through the same thing in my life this is a terrible place for any girl to live in be strong we love you

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    1. I'll pray for you malky, and all the girls and women being oppressed by "the community." It's so sad. Be strong and find your own freedom.

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  12. I feel bad for her. She clearly struggled in her upbringing with both her parent out of her life. I don't believe this is strictly religion related. Besides, some of the descriptions in this interview are extreme exaggerations and far from reality. Yet it is certainly spicy enough to sell a book.

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    1. Have you ever known anyone from the hasidic community? It is not an exaggeration at all. Many of the women are ok with, even want, the life they are forced to live but many do not and don't know how to escape or are too afraid or don't know there is another way to live or have no one on the outside to help them. It's very sad.

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  13. Firstly, to anyone writin against deborah, its highly inapropriate, she has obviously had her reasons and if u werent there to catch her in time, atleast be there for her now! Deborah, i understand u had an extreme upbringing and it was no easy deal, but we all know that its not ideal! Jewish life is so much more excitin then u were taught it is! Yes, when being clean for ur husband, u can hit the skies! God sent it to enjoy it! No one ever said u cant touch any body parts or so, or that u have to be dressed during the activity! To do whatever u wish besides for two things, kissin the vagina area and lookin! Im sure theres reason for it, yet its unknown! Its hard to follow something u dont understand, but im sure that no matter where u stand in life, u gotta follow blindly at some point! No one is blaimin you, u obviously didn't have it easy at all, but what im here to tell ya, you never had a chance to taste the spicy part in judaism! And guess what, its never too late! As long as there is life, there is hope! And im sure there are so many out there that wud love to help you back and start anew! I think its time to reconsider, you surely will have no regret!

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    1. Kissing and looking on vegina is actually only forbidden for man..

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    2. Jakob, learn to spell - 'vegina' is actually spelled - vagina. You obviously do not have a lot of experience with them

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  14. She is so angry- she had a messed up life to begin with so of course this is what happened. Even if she was Christian, she'd prob have turned Gothic or something. I agree with the extremism. It is out of hand- and I am ultra-orthodox. Sex should be enjoyed and there are many positives to Halacha, yet she chose to see the negative.

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  15. If she wants out of her religion, no problem. I don't blames her. What is the point of the book? It appears she feels guilty about it and wrote the book to justify her actions. And the NY Post what the story here? How many Catholics and Muslims leave their religion and no stories?

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  16. These comments make me ill. Live your life, Deborah - it's yours, not anyone else's! There will always be those of us who put people before prejudice. Be strong, and don't let anyone shame you for choosing your own way!

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    1. She's choosing to have her life spoken about!

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    2. So what. It's her life she can speak about if she wants. That is how the world finds out about oppression...the formerly oppressed who have managed to free themselves speak out against the oppressors. Information, education and enlightenment are good for everyone.

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  17. Truth is truth no matter how much or how long someone tries to suppress it--in law, in external codes, and most importantly in the heart. Do not let your hearts be hardened against G-d because you think that you can rely on the righteousness of the law to be acceptable before G-d. "All our righteousness is as filthy rags" it is written "sacrifice and offerings you did not desire but a body you have prepared for me" Yeshua came in that body, not born under sin or under the law, but he fulfilled all the righteous requirements of the law and as a kinsman redeemer and final atonement for sin for all time took back the mortgage deed against man--the law with all its regulations that stood as an accuser against all mankind has been rendered null and void on the condition that Yeshua's blood is on the symbolic doorpost of your life--your heart. All of the prophets who were ignored or abused or tortured or killed by their own people testify to the coming of Yeshua, He has said "behold, I stand at the door and knock and if any one hears my voice, I will come in and eat with him and him with Me."

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    1. Well said! If she doesn't get a chance to read this, I hope someone else is blessed by this message.

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    2. The above post was "missionary". Nothing less. No further comment necessary.

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  18. I am coming from where she is going now just give her some time and we will see

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  19. poor devorah (suri) grew up in a broken home. her parents had a miserable marriage and devorah never knew the beauty of a shabbos tish, the beauty of a yiddish life.
    now shes looking for the beauty in an empty goyish life...
    nebach.

    im living the life she left behind and the only restrictions are what u impose upon urself. And the torah ones??? they actually enrich our lives.

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    1. He home was broken because her mother also could not live the oppressed life forced on her. That life broke her family up.

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  20. All these comments against her only serve to prove her point.

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    1. u r so right ! please all talk positive

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  21. Growing up in a Hasidic neighborhood myself, I find part of this article to be true and a HUGE part of the article very far from reality, that being said, I am very happy that she chose the path that she was yearning for all her life and that she is happy now (at-least I hope she is).

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  22. See how desperately people try to justify treating women as fifth-class citizens, worse even than animals. Everything about that life degrades women; they're taught their bodies are filthy, their hair is filthy, their minds are filthy. Good for her for having the strength to leave; her life will only be better out in the real world where people are human beings with human dignity.

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  23. good for her. stories like this almost give me a tiny bit of hope for our species.

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  24. My only advice to her is to give up smoking.

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  25. um, well this kid has a long life ahead, at this moment she feels that her life is great, but lets hope that her regrets (mature thinking) will come to her very fast and turn back to yidishkeit, and chas veshulem not shlep others into this crazy life, and make many others regret their behaviors.......... hashem take us home now !!!

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  26. But is she happy now? I doubt it. For if she was, why would she still be busy besmirching her forebears and her upbringing? What's so clever about spitting in the well of which you drank?

    It's not enough for her that she followed her heart's desires, she wants everyone else in the community (including the vast majority who are happy et al) to follow HER heart's desires.

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    1. ... and it may just be a rumor, but I was told she's lesbian.

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  27. Let her make money. Her father is mental and mother god knows. Another self hating Jew! The media goes with it!

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  28. Listen to yourselves all. The girl was raped at 12 and was taught to hate life, sex, human beings!!! She is one of the bravest people I ve seen ever. I will buy the book, read it and then tell all my friends about it.

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    1. That would be very Unorthodox of you to do that.

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    2. ... Go ahead... your kids will be writing the same book with your attitude.... and you'll still wonder why?

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  29. Dear Deborah
    I understand you had a very hard life but i have some questons
    1. satmar williamsburg is very extreme, but there are so many jews living a very normal life not so extreme as you did so. why couldnt you choose a less extreme way of living .
    2. if you wanto lead such a life why do you have to go out to the world and talk against jews do what you need to but obvisouly you wanto make money off this.

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  30. http://youtu.be/0E4pui6ODbY

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  31. I've always had a difficult life and I can see why you'd want to try this life out (hope you come back to Hashem). You don't have to wear a wig, but keep kosher, Shabbos and Taharas hamishpacha when you are married.

    I do have a huge problem with you saying that Williamsburg
    (Chassidish) men are scary. I am not chassidish, but walk down a Jewish Williamsburg street at night and walk in any non Jewish Neighborhood at night. Seriously, who are you gong to be more afraid of (not sure about you, you're a stinker...)? Seriously I don't think that they'd even say a word to you... Hey, you want to take the easy way out and sell YOUR soul? your business, but stop with the lies and stop dragging others down with you!!

    P.S- you're not the only one who dealt with molestation...grow up.

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  32. I thank Deborah for being brave and sharing her story. She has made hard choices instead of letting them be made for her. A lot of women can learn from this--women of all kinds of backgrounds.

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  33. It's so funny how the negative comments most likely come from the people that she grew up with (i.e. her family and "friends"). If you love, respect and care for her, you would never say these things about her and you would never jeopardize her well being. Shame on all of you people who claim to be religious. It is very people like you who are influenced by Satan himself. Deborah has more courage and strength than you all have combined.

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  34. Just finished the book. Amazing. G-d wants all of his children to be happy, and to know that they are loved -- clearly that was not happeneing for her in the Satmar community. Why should she suffer? Deborah, you are an inspriation...don't listen to the hate. Raise your son and be happy, teach your son he has worth and that he is loved. Good luck to you.

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  35. Satmar took Deborah under their wing for a couple of years in order to help her; she is not a Satmar girl at all, she's a Bais Yakov girl, two very different scenario's. But don't take my word for it, here's a class photo of Deborah and other information that proves she's basically a liar http://deborah-feldman-exposed.blogspot.com/

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  36. It appears Deborah, that you have empowered yourself with equality and have every right to live the kind of life you choose. Nobody can decide for you. I, as a woman, as a Jewish woman am proud of you and wish you nothing but success with all you touch in life. Kol Ha'kavod. There's a lovely world out there for endless exploration.
    The other comments here are just filth made out or ignorance and blind belief in extremism, AND jealously. Let them be.
    Janis

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  37. I just finished reading the book. My kudos to this brave young lady. Hasidic extremist (which these people are) are absolutely no different from the muslim extremists that we so condemn. Best of luck to her.

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  38. Ultra orthodox Jews are full of hate against anybody who is different than they are. Rude and mean, these people have no official education and fill the heads of their young with extremist ideas.

    The difference between extremist muslims and hasidic Jews is that the Jews get away with their crimes without being punished by society. It is disgusting and veil.

    Good for this young woman, may she be happy and live a long life.

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  39. I have read you book and its great, I work in williamsburg i see what you wrote everyday. Best of luck and enjoy life you and your son.

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  40. Go Deborah! You're an inspiration. And if anyone wants to know what the point of this book is--- for people to enjoy and learn.

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