In her new memoir “Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return,” Susan Reimer-Torn chronicles her return to Jewish life in New York after years of living as a formerly-Orthodox woman in France.
Elissa Strauss spoke with Reimer-Torn about freedom, healing and what the current generation of formerly-religious writers like Deborah Feldman and Leah Vincent can learn from her experience.
Leave it to feminist icon Letty Cottin Pogrebin to spice things up. On the new episode of The Jewish Channel series “The Salon,” a conversation about the so-called “war on women” leads Pogrebin to discuss the power of the female orgasm:
And in another show highlight, fellow panelist Deborah Feldman, the author of the best-selling memoir “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” asks Pogrebin if she thinks her controversial book would have been taken more seriously in Orthodox circles if she were a man. Here’s her answer:
My friends and I are celebrating the news that a group of our friends — all former ultra-Orthodox Jews, or maskilim — are getting their own reality show.
We maskilim have been living on the fringes of the Jewish world, many of us navigating dramatic journeys of self-discovery as we pull ourselves free of our pasts, and try to rebuild our lives. When I left my religious family 14 years ago, I did it as a teenager, alone. But since then, a community has coalesced. Footsteps, an organization that helps cultural émigrés from Orthodox Judaism, was founded. Unpious, a website that showcases our voices, was launched. And now the momentum builds, with the publication of Deborah Feldman’s best-selling memoir, Pearlperry Reich’s television appearance (video below) and news of this reality show — all in a few short weeks.
I don’t know exactly what the TV show will cover, but I’ve got some idea. When my buddies and I get together and talk about our journeys, we’ve got plenty of stories to share about fumbling sex, our first “sin,” leaving a religious spouse behind, living secret lives beneath religious facades, visiting a strip club, choosing college over yeshiva — and that’s before we start talking about the otherworldliness of our unusual childhoods!
Gavriella, I understand from this Sisterhood post that you don’t like the questions you’re getting in the wake of the publication of Deborah Feldman’s memoir and Pearlperry Reich’s television appearance about leaving the ultra-Orthodox world. I understand that you may feel attacked, when these women criticize their communities of origin.
But to me, a writer who has left Orthodoxy and is, indeed, “shopping around my ex-frum story,” your post got me wondering: Is your version of Orthodoxy significantly different than the one these women were raised with?
If the answer is yes, how can you possibly determine what kind of response they should have to their experiences? If your brand of Orthodox Judaism is close enough to ultra-Orthodoxy that you feel attacked by their going public, then we have a bigger problem on our hands.
Hasidim, and even more “garden variety” Orthodox Jews such as myself, are a people apart, and we will always seem strange against the backdrop of 21st century America. With all the press coverage over the last few weeks, I can’t even count how many of my classmates have asked me if I have any hair under my hat or if I shave it off. For the record, I keep it long. Still my answer doesn’t do much for the weirdness factor. But I guess we’ve been the weird ones for 4,000 years or so; it’s nothing new.
When we talk about bat mitzvahs, we tend to focus on the more absurdist elements of the day, like our regrettable sartorial choices and tales of general teenage awkwardness. We get so caught up in the puffy sleeved pink skirt suits and the fact that Ron Greenberg decided to do “Love Shack” in the karaoke booth with Jessica even though you asked him first, that we fail to consider how truly progressive this ceremony once was.
The bat mitzvah was a major achievement for early Jewish feminists who, caught up the fervor of the suffragette victory of 1922, decided to claim the right of passage as their own. Now, in light of bat mitzvah’s 90th anniversary, the JCC in Manhattan is hosting an exhibit about ceremony, as well as a concert and performance this Thursday night dedicated to the ceremony.
The show is headlined by Girls in Trouble, led by singer/songwriter Alicia Jo Rabins, and will feature performances by comedian Judy Gold, performance artist Glenn Marla, writer Deborah Feldman, and actress Sam Mozes.
The Sisterhood spoke with these women about their sometimes funny, sometimes boring, and sometimes empowering experiences up on the bima. Feel free to share your bat mitzvah story in the comments section below.
My colleague Elissa Strauss, in this Sisterhood post, asks why I focused on the way author Deborah Feldman is dressed in recent press photos promoting her memoir “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots.”
As Elissa notes, I wrote in my Sisterhood post that Feldman seems somehow immature, that in photos she looks like nothing so much as one of the 13-year-old girls I see on the bat mitzvah circuit who wear super-high heels and super-short dresses. These girls look like they are playing a sexy version of dress-up.
Elissa observes, correctly, that Feldman is dressed no differently than countless other young women today, including herself, and writes: “Never did it occur to me, and I assume, to many of them, that dressing like this in 2012 would cause anyone to think of us as childish and therefore take us less seriously.”
Elissa continues: “Your assessment of Feldman…did tap into some of the same fears about a woman’s body and how it should be hid, to some degree or another, in order for the world to take us seriously… Why bring in the skinny jeans?”
I understand Elissa’s point, but it is not quite the one I was attempting to make in my post about Feldman and “Unorthodox.”
In your recent critique of Deborah Feldman’s new book,”Unorthodox,” you point to the clothes that Feldman has been photographed in as a sign that she lacks maturity. You write:
“Whatever the truth, something about Feldman still seems very young, though she is now 25 and the mother of a nearly 6-year-old son. In photos in the [New York] Post, posing in a sequined, sleeveless mini-dress, and in pictures on the ABC News website, where she sits on a park bench, wearing high heels, tight jeans and holding a cigarette in her hand, she looks like nothing so much as a young girl posing the way she thinks grownups are supposed to. … She reminds me of 13-year-old girls I see at some bat mitzvahs, teetering around on stiletto heels and wearing minis so short they can’t safely sit down.”
I took a look at the pictures in question, and in them Feldman looks no different than many young women I see on the streets of New York and in my Facebook scroll everyday — including myself. I am talking about women in their 20s and their 30s, who don’t think twice about throwing on a pair of skinny jeans or a mini-dress on a weekend night.
There is something that seems slightly worrisome about Deborah Feldman. She has written a sensational first book, the memoir “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots,” which is newly published by Simon & Schuster and grew out of an anonymous blog she kept while trying to work her way out of life as a Satmar Hasid. Now questions are being asked about her veracity.
Her story, which The Sisterhood’s Judy Bolton-Fasman wrote about here, is riveting: Left by her mother as a very young girl, Feldman’s father is developmentally delayed, and she is raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, by his parents. The confines of a Satmar girl’s life, particularly that of a girl whose family has neither money nor lineage to boast of, are rigid. She is married at 17 to a man she’s barely met and becomes pregnant as soon as they figured out how to consummate their marriage.
It is a life most of us can hardly imagine. And as a result, Feldman has been getting lots of press. In addition to a spot on “The View,” the book has been reviewed in The Forward, and covered by The New York Post and ABC News.
At first impression Deborah Feldman’s new memoir,”Unorthodox,” reviewed here in the Forward, feels like déjà vu all over again: Girl breaks away from her insular Hasidic sect after a youth of illicitly reading library books and sneaking into movie theaters. With subtitle like “The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” it’s tempting to consider the book as a sexier, 21st-century version of Pearl Abraham’s novel “The Romance Reader.”
But that would be a disservice to Feldman, 25, who has succeeded in writing a heart-rending sexual polemic.
“I’ve never felt more Jewish than I do now,” Feldman told me, as she nibbled on a scone at a whimsical Manhattan café called Alice’s Teacup.“I love mainstream Judaism. I’m still acclimating, but I love the diversity in a Modern Orthodox society.”
Her early life among the Satmar Hasidim was still exceptionally difficult. Her mentally unstable father was eventually matched with a hapless young British woman who had apparently been lured with gifts and promises of financial security. The marriage self-destructed soon after Feldman was born.