Is Deborah Feldman’s “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots” the publishing world’s latest fraudulent memoir, on par with James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces?”
Or has the 25-year-old Williamsburg native simply exercised a little poetic license in crafting her tale of growing up Satmar?
The memoir, published less than a month ago by Simon and Schuster, is currently Amazon’s 55th top seller, and its No. 1 top-selling Jewish book. Feldman has appeared on ABC’s “The View,” WNYC’s “Leonard Lopate Show,” in Salon, The New York Post and The Daily News, to name just a few.
The book has also spurred a cottage industry devoted to dispelling its inaccuracies. Soon after the book came out, this newspaper’s Hella Winston found various holes in Feldman’s allegations of a brutal murder and cover-up in the upstate town of Kiryas Joel. (The coroner ruled the death a suicide, The Jewish Week learned.) Meanwhile, an anonymous blog — “Deborah Feldman Exposed” — has sprung up to respond to the book’s claims (and Feldman’s comments in interviews) about the Satmar world and the author’s family history and childhood.
Aiding in the research — digging up everything from family photos, Feldman’s old blog posts, school photos and Facebook posts of Feldman’s mother, Shoshana Berkovic — is Shmarya Rosenberg’s “Failed Messiah,” a blog that usually focuses on exposing scandals within the haredi community.
Among the findings: Feldman misstates the timing of various news events within the Satmar community and falsely claims that the first Satmar rebbe’s daughter was pushed down the stairs while pregnant (the synagogue where this supposedly happened was not yet built at the time of her death). Feldman, despite claims that her mother abandoned her as a toddler, was apparently in contact with her mother throughout much of her childhood; her parents divorced considerably later than she indicates; she has a younger sister, now 17, whom she neglects to mention in the book; she attended Bais Yakov on the Lower East Side and another non-Satmar but Orthodox school until sixth grade. (Feldman was allegedly expelled from Bais Yakov for telling classmates about sex, a topic that, according to her memoir, she was completely ignorant about until shortly before her wedding.) In addition, Feldman falsely claims that her mother is listed in the closing credits of the 2001 documentary about gay Orthodox Jews, “Trembling Before G-d.”
Feldman’s defenders, meanwhile, have insisted the author is simply being smeared for criticizing chasidic Jews, and have pointed to the book’s disclaimer, which notes that “certain events have been compressed, consolidated, or reordered to protect the identities of the people involved and ensure continuity of the narrative.”
Feldman, who declined to be interviewed by The Jewish Week for this article, posted a statement last week on her blog noting that in the book she has “offered the reader experiences that were most important to me, all the while trying my best to protect the privacy of people I cared about. There are those who object to my decision to omit certain aspects of my life. In response, I can only say that there are matters about which I am not confident I know the whole truth, and I prefer to avoid further speculating on the personal lives of people who have not invited the kind of public scrutiny I am allowing for myself.”
Responding to reports that her mother did not abandon the community until Feldman was a teenager, the author writes: “The idea of community in a religious setting is mutable, and Williamsburg is a big place. My mother may have lived within its bounds, but there was a time early in my life that she no longer adhered rigidly to the Satmar way, and was emphatically not living with me, or raising me. As a child I was often the pawn being pushed around by those fighting a bigger battle, and although my family dynamic didn’t always make sense to me, I knew which adults were in charge, and my mother wasn’t one of them.”
As for the now dispelled claim of murder and cover-up, Feldman downplays it: “I do not state that his father murdered him. I relay a conversation that I had with my husband, showing that my mind went to a certain conclusion and stating that my husband urged me not to jump to conclusions.”
However, in an interview with The Jewish Week shortly before the book’s publication, Feldman was more strident in her accusations about the matter, insisting that her brother-in-law was “the first on the scene” and that the Satmar EMT’s director covered up the matter out of fear that a “full-scale investigation” could affect ongoing lawsuits, including the community’s fight “for the right to have an independent village with funding from the state.”
She also told The Jewish Week that the dead boy’s father is “notorious in the community for being a lunatic.”
In that interview, Feldman also made a variety of other allegations that may raise the eyebrows of her detractors: claiming her ex-husband had an affair with Feldman’s cousin, family members e-mailed her death threats, and that in the Satmar community “the rules are just for show” and “all the young people are either ultra-fanatic or they want out.”