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
She told the world her story of a loveless arranged marriage and religious restrictions, but now, the Orthodox Jewish community that she left is firing back.
Deborah Feldman, 25, left her ultra-conservative Satmar community in the Williamsburg neighbourhood of Brooklyn more than two years ago, and says she hasn’t looked back.
But to her neighbours and former husband, she has left little more than feelings of hurt and betrayal, as her former community says Ms Feldman paints a misleading picture of Hasidic life.
Following a whirlwind book tour, including a lengthy interview on ABC’s The View, Ms Feldman is blazing her own trail apart from the conservative religious community in which she grew up.
However, her family says things revealed in her memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, including that she was trapped in a ‘loveless’ marriage, came as news to former husband Joel Feldman.
Mr Feldman’s uncle Izzy Berkowitz told the New York Post an entirely different story. ‘(Deborah) was crazy about this boy. She was dying to get married.
Ms Feldman said on the View that she had known her husband-to-be only half an hour prior to their marriage.
Mr Berkowitz continued: ‘He did everything and anything for her, but she never appreciated anything no matter what he did.
He speculated that she ‘lacked happiness’ and could never be content. Another neighbour in the conservative Williamsburg community said Mr Feldman felt ‘betrayed’ by Ms Feldman’s portrayal of him in her memoir.
In one passage, she writes: ‘Whenever (Joel) feels libidinous… he approaches me much in the same way I imagine a dog pounce on a leg of furniture.
We feel insulted,’ neighbour Pear Engelman said of Ms Feldman’s book. ‘It paints the whole community in a bad light.
In one passage of the memoir, she writes of a shocking tale in which a 13-year-old Satmar boy is murdered by his father for masturbating, and the whole gruesome story is covered up by the Orthodox volunteer ambulance corps Hatzolah.
She wrote that the boy had his penis cut off and was nearly beheaded by his livid father. In defence, New York Jewish Week said the story was in fact about a 19 or 20-year-old man who committed suicide.
When asked about her stance by the Jewish Daily Forward, Ms Feldman replied: ‘I don’t have a response. I am not a journalist…You read the book, you saw how I portrayed that story.
She now lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with her son, who is almost six.
At just 17, Ms Feldman found herself in an arranged marriage.
Sex was dysfunctional. In an interview with the New York Post, she remembers never hearing the word 'sex' or 'vagina' mentioned and intercourse was a dark, fumbled affair after which her husband called the rabbi who then declared her consummated and 'unclean'.
The rabbi has the final word on sex and health - even inspecting underwear 'in a zip lock bag' to declare whether a woman's period is kosher or nonkosher.
For two weeks of each month, her husband was not allowed to touch her, or even come into secondary contact with her. '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,' she told the newspaper.
In a note from the author, Ms Feldman explains the roots of Satmar Hasidism, a Jewish sect that is largely shielded from modern life - and one that she believes, she told the Post, is no better than extreme Muslim fundamentalism.
A reaction to the atrocities of Holocaust, the sect is named for a Hungarian town that was the home of a rabbi who fled to the U.S.
Hasidic Jews in America eagerly returned to a heritage that had been on the verge of disappearing, donning traditional dress and speaking only in Yiddish, as their ancestors had done,' she writes.
'Most important, though, Hasidic Jews focused on reproduction, wanting to replace the many who had perished and to swell their ranks once more. To this day, Hasidic communities continue to grow rapidly, in what is seen as the ultimate revenge against Hitler.
In the book, she describes how she was forbidden from speaking in English and was told that 'impure languages' act as welcome mats 'put out for the devil.
She told the Post that the emphasis on faith was so all-pervading that every day she was forced to put her life into the hands of God - and health and safety was all but ignored by her family and friends.
She rode in a car without a seatbelt, never visited a doctor and was made to respect all older Hasid men, even if they posed a threat to her wellbeing.
She suggests that at age 12, she was sexually assaulted by a cousin and was made to feel it was her problem: 'It’s obviously all your fault and not his, and you need to keep quiet about it,' she told the newspaper.
In her memoir, she recalls hiding her contraband Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott books: 'Once a year when Zeidy [grandfather] inspects the house for Passover, poking through our things, we hover anxiously, terrified of being found out.
Zeidy even rifles through my underwear drawer. Only when I tell him that this is my private female stuff does he desist, unwilling to violate a woman’s privacy'.
Stories of a different world - promises of hope and glimpses into what could be - the books opened the author's eyes to a future beyond Satmar Hasidism.
It was the birth of her son, now five, combined with the classes she had enrolled in at Sarah Lawrence College, that flicked a switch in the young Brooklyinte's head - she knew that there was more to life.
A car near-fatal crash was the final straw, and on leaving the hospital, she packed her bags and moved in with her college friend.
Throwing herself into life as a young, independent single mother, Ms Feldman is set on making up for lost time - relishing the simplicities of day-to-day living that she was denied in her ultra-conservative upbringing.
Ms Feldman describes how much she enjoys visiting restaurants.
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.
Hair is another area in which she relishes having freedom. For a year, she followed the Satmar expectation of women to shave their heads and wear wigs. 'I have a hard time cutting my hair now, because I remember how long it took to grow it out the first time,' she says.
Her clothing was as restrictive as her language - at 11-years-old, dressing rules became stricter, she told the Post, forcing girls to 'only wear high-neck blouses, with woven fabrics, because their theory is that woven fabrics don’t cling. T-shirts show boobs.
Swimming suits were 'ridiculous' full-body cladding, consisting of 'nylon fabric and thick, floppy, long sleeves, and pants covered with an extra layer of material to make it look like a skirt.
She now celebrates her body and womanly curves, wearing short dresses and comfortable knits.
The decision to leave Hasidism and her family - she now has primary custody of her son - she says, was not made lightly. She received emails from her closest relatives encouraging her to commit suicide and says she is now a pariah - but that the book acts as 'protection'.
[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,' she told the Post.