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 and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.

  • Andi GreyScale

    I actually pre-ordered the ebook when it was first available and read it in just one sitting because I was enthralled by it. She’s a wonderful writer, and reading about her upbringing was like watching a train wreck; terrible, but you can’t look away.

    I highly recommend that everyone buy the book, either as the ebook or paper.

    I will now personally look into that organization she wants to work for, Footsteps.

  • Sven2547

    What’s it like to be a woman in an ultra-orthodox (fill in the blank) environment? Not a pretty picture.

    The more “orthodox” religions get, the more alike they become on the treatment of women.

    • kelemi

      UNDERSTATEMENT!

    • busterggi

      It could lead one to think ignorant hateful men created the Abrahamic god w/o imput from women.

      At least Cthulhu kills both sexes indiscriminately.

      • C.L. Honeycutt

        Well, even today, on this website, we have multiple people demanding that we pay obeisance to a magic spellbook full of rape fantasies, written by shepherds who spent all their time fuming over people not cutting their hair correctly… until they were corrected by a homeless rabbi who told them to instead seek inside it for psychic messages from the universe telling them what other people REALLY think, in between flipping out over figs like he was a cereal mascot.

        …y’know, I swear, I did have a point, but I completely lost it in musing about how incredibly stupid they actually sound sometimes, and how there isn’t a single thing in Lovecraft that isn’t more plausible than Bible stories.

        (ia ia Chtulhu fhtagn)

        • Tom

          I nearly cracked up at the cereal mascot thing. There’s an image that’s going to stick!

  • Nikita

    The link to the article doesn’t work. I used this one: http://nypost.com/2012/02/07/i-was-a-hasidic-jew-but-i-broke-free/

    • Terry Firma

      Thanks, will fix as soon as I’m back at a computer.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      Fixed now!

  • Tainda

    Purchased the book.

    I LOVE reading about any kind of fundamentalist upbringing

  • the moother

    Now you can’t keep people from accessing information. It’s weakening the community’s hold over their own.

    When I lived in a VERY muslim neighbourhood in The Netherlands I would smirk every time I saw someone with a smartphone or a tablet for this very reason. Sure, right now they’re mostly reading their own propaganda but all those pages are filled with evil hyperlinks… There’s no way that religion can survive much longer…

    • busterggi

      Sure it can, that’s why there’s so much pressure from fundies for blasphemy laws – kill anyone anywhere who thinks differently, that’ll make everything better.

    • xtotec

      Well, Christianity has been around for a few years in all its “glory” and the story above about ultraultraultra-orthodox Jews must show some longevity, so I’m sure we’ll have the oppressive Muslims around for way longer than is rationally tolerable. But I take your point, and rejoice in the hope that rationality and science will SOME DAY finally triumph over all this stupdity, hate, and oppression.

      • the moother

        Islam will be the last hold-out for sure… that’s why it’s important for the rest of the religions to drop the stupidity real quick…

        Islam is only geared to fight against other religions. But if they are the only one left playing with their stupid toy when worldwide atheism is a reality then they will really feel left behind. Islam cannot win or even fight against atheism.

        • Jim Jones

          Islam will self destruct because it can’t adapt. We just need to keep out of the way.

          • kelemi

            Some brands of Islam will and some won’t.
            Just like Communism in the 1990s. Russia’s didn’t adapt but China’s did. I really am not fond of either.

            • Rob McClain

              Interesting that you made a connection between communism and religion. Does that mean that you view communism as more of a theocracy or Islam as more of a political system?

              • kelemi

                Or both as ideologies, one believing in a supreme being and the other not.

                • Jim Jones

                  All known communist systems believed in a supreme leader/being, North Korea being a very extreme version of this.

                • kelemi

                  Okay, a supernaural god. I know that Stalin and the Kims liked to think they were.

                • Jim Jones

                  They have this in common with most kings, czars, pharaohs and the like.

              • Jim Jones

                We don’t know. No one’s ever tried communism as a political system, only as a dictatorial political system with fake communism.

                • 3lemenope

                  That might have a bit to do with Communism not being a political system, but rather a (almost certainly incorrect) prediction by Marx on the natural evolution of economies. Marx himself was very unclear (or at least vacillated too much to track) on what exactly the political nature of “the dictatorship of the proletariat” would be, which is his name for the political transition layer between a dying imperial Capitalist economy (i.e. one that has solved the problem of scarcity, by-and-large, and is foundering on diminishing returns from the domestic market) and a Communist one.

                • Jim Jones

                  I’m given to understand that in the former USSR, the restaurants used to close for lunch and dinner so the staff could eat. That’s pretty much all I need to know about a totally centrally controlled system.

                  OTOH, a comparison between ACIPCO and McWane tells me all I need to know about unrestricted capitalism. The conclusion is that a mixed system is optimum and there should be a lot more employee owned businesses.

  • kelemi

    As bad as this is, the Taliban is worse. Still, glad you issued the challenge.

    • Terry Firma

      The Taliban is worse in the same sense that a quadruple amputee is ‘worse’ than a triple amputee.

      • 3D

        I think it’s more accurate to say that while they are pretty much equally awful, philosophically, the Taliban and other extremist Muslim groups are worse in practice, because they have the fully armed support of powerful governments. So they have the ability to do way more damage in the world.

        Hasidic Jews in the US have the disadvantage of living under a (mostly) secular government which pushes back against most stuff like this.

        If the government fully embraced Hasidic ideology, they would be every bit as bad as the Taliban.

        • ufo42

          Very good point. Religious fanatics without control over government are a disaster for their victims (whom they call members). Religious fanatics with control over government are a disaster for everyone in the country and everyone in countries which can be attacked from the country.

    • Bitter Lizard

      I think the “Not All Like That” campaign just found its new slogan: The Taliban is Worse!

      • kelemi

        Of course I don’t like fanatics of any religion.

        • 3D

          The “fanatics” are only “fanatics” because of rational people pushing back against their bullshit though.

          You don’t have to go very far back in time to get to a point where being “fanatical” was pretty mainstream (e.g.: owning slaves, beating gays to death with rocks, burning suspected witches).

          “Fanaticism” is relative. Yes it’s nice that most theists in the world follow only the 20-30 nice pages in their various books that they read, and ignore the vast swaths of horrible violent crap; but that doesn’t happen spontaneously and by accident. It happens because we shame them and pass laws to prevent it.

          If we keep drawing a line that says “oh, religion is nice, but some people pervert it”, then we stop all the progress we have made. The big three religions aren’t “nice”. They are evil horrible cults that have been secularized into something “nice” because as we have progressed into a secular society we have taken away their right to practice them the way they were intended.

          The countries with Islamic governments have not done this, and this is why their offenses have been worse in practice. Not because either Christianity or Islam is “better” than the other but because one exists in an area where “fanaticism” is encouraged, and the other exists mostly in areas where people aren’t allowed, by law, to actually follow most of the Bible.

  • cipher

    There’s this sort of tacit arrangement: They don’t do anything the media can criticize.

    That isn’t quite accurate. They do plenty the media can criticize (and do criticize, when they get the chance): fraud, domestic violence, sexual abuse of children to rival anything going on in the Catholic Church. They’re just very closed-mouthed about it. There’s a concept called “mesira” – informing – and it’s considered to be the worst crime a Jew can commit. You simply don’t air the community’s dirty laundry, and you don’t, under any circumstances, go to the secular authorities.

    About sexual abuse – in the Church, when it’s discovered, the laity is outraged that it happened. In the ultra-Orthodox world, when someone reveals s/he has been raped or abused, the laity is outraged that the victim had the temerity to speak out. Rabbis have been protecting abusers for decades. They tell their followers to come to them rather than go to the police, then they shuffle the perpetrators around as the Catholic Church does with its predators.

    It’s a xenophobic subculture that is collapsing under its own weight, largely because it can no longer support its irresponsibly growing numbers, and they refuse, for the most past, to educate their children in a manner that would enable them to function outside of their cloistered world. The rabbis are becoming aware that their power is slipping away, and they’re reacting by imposing increasingly greater stringencies in an effort to keep their followers as ignorant and dependent upon them as possible.

    If anyone is interested, a friend of mine blogs about the problems in that world: http://failedmessiah.typepad.com/

    • Terry Firma

      Oh, for sure! Shmarya Rosenberg, who runs Failed Messiah, does excellent work exposing orthodox Jewry’s bad behavior. I check out his blog once or twice a week. Please give him my regards!

      • cipher

        I’ll show this to him, but it’s Rosh Hashanah, so he won’t see it for a couple of days. :-)

        (I should mention that Shmarya doesn’t fully believe Feldman’s account, but there’s plenty to dislike about that world regardless.)

    • 3D

      >It’s a xenophobic subculture that is collapsing under its own weight, largely because it can no longer support its irresponsibly growing numbers, and they refuse, for the most past, to educate their children in a manner that would enable them to function outside of their cloistered world.

      True, but also, it’s because they keep fucking their own relatives, and each subsequent generation gets a little dumber.

      • cipher

        Yeah, inbreeding is a concern. I’ve said much the same thing myself.

        I don’t know if any studies have been done demonstrating a higher than average incidence of congenital illness, but if it turned out to be the case, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

        • 3D

          Only anecdotal evidence here, but I live in a neighborhood with a huge Hasidic population and you can’t walk 10 minutes around here without seeing a Hasidic little boy or girl with Down Syndrome.

          • cipher

            Mm, yeah. I live in Boston and our Haredi community is very small, but according to what I hear from people who live in areas with larger communities, such as NYC, I’m sure you’re right.

            There’s also a particular practice that is part of the manner in which they perform circumcision (a practice not engaged in by the vast majority of Jews) that exposes the infants to herpes. It’s known to have caused a number of deaths, but there’s also speculation it may be widely responsible for developmental disabilities as well.

          • Anat

            Down Syndrome would probably not be related to inbreeding but to the fact that they keep having children even at higher ages.

            • Whirlwitch

              Maternal age is only one factor in the frequency of Down Syndrome. Inbreeding is correlated with higher rates of many different genetic abnormalities; I’m not an expert, but Down Syndrome could be one.

            • Rob McClain

              Good catch, Anat. Most people would not link the two circumstances so adroitly.

    • Tom

      Implosive subcultures like that are so perversely, bafflingly contradictory when they get all reticent – why do they act so ashamed, and obsess so much about the outside world finding out about how they manage things internally, when they’re simultaneously supposed to be the only ones doing anything right, by divine command? Why do they, the ones with a supposed direct line to god, whose rules they follow better than anyone else, even bat an eye at criticism from the likes of us ignorant, decadent heathens? Why do they insist they’re the ones doing everything right, but then freak out if any of us actually observes them doing it? To risk sounding like a Javert, why would god’s chosen fear the book if all it does is tell the truth about them? Why does enforcing the rules seem to count as much as dirty laundry as breaking them?

      • cipher

        It’s a psychotic subculture, Tom. I’ve heard rhetoric coming out of that world over the years that I wouldn’t even know how to explain to you. Like the evangelicals, they’ve created a totally parallel reality.

        Deborah Feldman is correct; change is occurring, but it’s much too gradual and I don’t think it will ever amount to more than a dent, anyway, if they’re left to their own devices. I’ve said it many times on my friends blog, which I mentioned above – their world needs to be forcibly dismantled.

  • Matthew Baker

    You never realize how crazy certain insular cultures are until you hear what they do from a former member. I am glad she managed to get herself out and is willing to cast light into dark places.

  • Croquet_Player

    A hearty congratulations to Ms. Feldman for her incredibly brave act of freeing herself from a terrible situation. I hope more can follow her lead. Brava!

  • Mario Strada

    Nothing short of chilling.

  • Matt

    I read this book and I thought it was very well written. It is worth your time to read it if only to get a better idea what it is like living in this section of society. Not to spoil it too much, but the major reason why she was able to leave was that her mom taught her to read English. Testament to how important education is, especially in these environments.

    -Matt

  • ufo42

    That is great news. Maybe the internet will be the cure for religion after all. Let freedom reign (or rain, whatever) … oh and Kitties! :)

  • Robster

    Are all the abrahamic religions as mad as the xians and muzzies? I always thought that jewishness was a wee bit less absurd as the other two relgions on offer. One day, someone’s going to invent another faith that at least will have a veneer of rationality, perhaps not.

    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

      Yeah, they’re all equally crazy. The ultra-Orthodox were a very small sect for a long time, but they emphasize having lots of kids, so they’ve been growing recently. Most American Jews are still moderate/liberal, but that’s because they mostly ignore the super-absurd bits.

      The ultra-Orthodox have also gotten more and more fundamentalist over the years, kinda like the fundamentalist Christians. It’s like they pull each other deeper and deeper into the hole of absolute nonsense, competing to see who is the holiest (yes, pun intended) and follows the rules the most.

  • AxeGrrl

    They want me to commit suicide

    I can’t think of anything much more chilling/disturbing/appalling than that statement.

    The next time I hear someone assert that religion is ‘good for family’, I’ll remember those words.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/ Ani J. Sharmin

    Thanks for sharing this. I have read a little about people leaving Christianity and Islam, and I wanted to read about someone leaving Judaism. It’s really brave of her to share her story.

  • Ben

    Interesting story. I’ve met some Hasidic Jews recently (there’s a community here in Pittsburgh) and enjoy learning about their way of life, as I like to learn about all kinds of people. I’m sure what is being described here is true, although the Hasid I have met have been very kind. Extremism, and narcissism, comes in all forms, and in singles as well as groups, but it is important to look closely at where evil is coming from. I notice a lot of anti-religious remarks here, some of them quite angry and mean. Reactionary attitudes are just another form of what extremism is-arrogance and self-righteousness. I’m sure there are many intelligent people on this blog, so why is it so hard to figure out that religion, spirituality, or belief in God has nothing to do with what sick controlling people are doing? Oh, sure, “religion” or “God” are two of the tools that narcissists use to control people, but its not the religion that is bad, it is the person, whatever they are claiming to be. Some people use money to control others, some people use influence, some use other people’s needs, etc. None of those things are bad in and of themselves, but controllers will always use something good as a cover to control people-how else could they get away with manipulating except by fooling others with something good and then twisting it? Don’t react to what they use-that only helps to serve their purpose. It is the person who, for whatever reason, is doing the manipulating, controlling and sucking the life out of others. We only help them to stay disguised when we blame what they are using. Don’t let them claim to be anything but what they are- self-serving narcissists who live off the life blood of others by using a disguise to hide behind. Whether its religion or charm or a white picket fence, look beyond it.


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