What’s It Like To Be a Woman in an Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Environment? It’s Not a Pretty Picture

Two days ago, I wrote about Israel’s education authorities censoring science textbooks — specifically, removing information about female sexual organs and human reproduction.

A friend then sent me a link to a mindbending 2012 interview with Deborah Feldman, who grew up in the Satmar sect among Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jews. She was forced into marriage at 17, but, encouraged by college friends, mustered the courage to leave that deeply misogynist culture some three years ago. Feldman wrote a riveting book about her experiences: Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.

In this post, I’ll simply do some prodigious quoting from the interview — or you can read the complete exchange between Feldman and interviewer Sara Stewart for yourself, here.

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, [your husband] 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 was 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.

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.

At the end, though, Feldman strikes a cautiously optimistic note about change:

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.

If you’re as spellbound as I am, another worthwhile interview with Feldman is here.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.


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