‘Writing secured my survival’: Meet the Berlin-based author of ‘Unorthodox’

Deborah Feldman was 23 when she fled her ultra-Orthodox home in New York with her son, sparking outrage in the closed Jewish community, her dramatic story inspiring the Netflix hit "Unorthodox".

'Writing secured my survival': Meet the Berlin-based author of 'Unorthodox'
Deborah Feldman and her dog in Berlin in March. Photo: DPA

In 2012, more than two years after her escape, Feldman published her memoir, “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots”, which on Thursday went on sale in Spanish, published by Lumen, a division of Penguin Random House.

The book's Spanish release follows the huge success of the Netflix mini-series, released in March, starring Israeli actress Shira Haas.

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The story is loosely based on the life of Feldman, who was born in 1986 into the Hasidic Satmar community in Brooklyn.

An ultra-Orthodox sect, the Satmar Hasids are characterised by their extremely strict religious observances, their rejection of contemporary culture and opposition to the modern state of Israel.

In this Yiddish-speaking environment, rules govern every aspect of life, from food and hygiene to clothing, hairstyles, books, and even sexual relations within marriage.

Feldman in 2016. Photo: DPA

Born to a father who was mentally ill and a mother who was a lesbian, Feldman felt the community's rejection from the outset.

“I was a product of that scandal,” she told journalists in an online interview. “I was treated already as if I were not one of them.”

Forced to stop reading

Feldman, who since 2014 has lived in Berlin with her son Yitzhak, says it was her love of reading which made her dream of another life, secretly choosing books in English — which was forbidden.

“Reading was an escape, it was an access to very far-out worlds.

“I had a fantasy then of being a writer… an impossible dream,” says Feldman, who is now 33 and has since written a second memoir called “Exodus”.

Married off at 17, she was forced to stop reading because she didn't immediately fall pregnant. “I had my books taken away.”

The idea of leaving first came to her in hospital after giving birth when she was 19. What she wanted was to divorce her husband and keep custody of the baby but she was warned off the idea by a lawyer who told her: “Your chances are zero”.

Another lawyer later suggested the only option was to go public with her story, so she began to write it all down.

“Unorthodox”, she says, was “written under the pressure of knowing that this is the only thing that is going to get you your freedom and secure your survival, and the survival of your child.

Written in the present tense, the memoir was a huge success but it enraged the Satmar community.

For them, she had “crossed a red line” and turned into an enemy, “someone like Hitler,” she says.

The fact that she was a woman, writing a non-fiction book about leaving the community, was seen as “offensive… very full of chutzpah,” she said, using the Hebrew term for “audacity”.

Not only did the book raise awareness of her situation and help her win a divorce, but it paved the way for others: after its publication, “many people left the community”.

'No sense of self'

Set in an extremely secretive world, the narrative focuses on questions of identity for a young woman in a community where gender roles are rigidly defined from an early age.

But in such a context, issues concerning the vulnerability of women and minors are rarely, if ever, debated.

“Judaism has always claimed to be too vulnerable to have conversations about injustice and discrimination within its community,” she said, in a nod to centuries of persecution culminating in the Nazi Holocaust.

“Ultra-orthodoxy is a problem for all of us,” she said — one which “the Jewish community needs to confront” while also being “a topic in Islam (and) even in Evangelical Christian sects”.

Haas in 'Unorthodox'. Photo: DPA

After her escape, she spent the first three years with barely enough money to survive, fearing that like others before her, she might become suicidal or suffer mental health issues.

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She also had to rebuild her own sense of identity.

“You have no sense of self… your community has always defined who you are,” she said, with those stripped of family, rituals, language and beliefs, facing a “true crisis”.

But with a young son who needed her, she didn't have much time to dwell on such issues, which ultimately pulled her through.

“I credit my son for surviving this period.”

By Álvaro Villalobos

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Germany to ease citizenship requirements for Nazi victims’ kin

The German government on Wednesday agreed a draft law to naturalise some descendants of Nazi victims who had previously been denied citizenship.

Germany to ease citizenship requirements for Nazi victims' kin
A man walks through the 'Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe' in Berlin in January. Photo: DPA

Described by Berlin as a symbolic step, the measure helps close legal loopholes which had led to many victims’ descendants having their citizenship application rejected.

“This is not just about putting things right, it is about apologising in profound shame,” said Interior Minister Horst Seehofer.

“It is a huge fortune for our country if people want to become German, despite the fact that we took everything from their ancestors,” he said in a statement.

While Germany has long allowed descendants of persecuted Jews to reclaim citizenship, the lack of a legal framework meant many applicants were rejected before a rule change in 2019.

Some were denied because their ancestors fled Germany and took on another nationality before their citizenship was officially revoked.

Others were rejected because they were born to a German mother and non-German father before April 1st, 1953.

Passing the 2019 decree into law was a way of giving them “the value they deserved” while putting beneficiaries on a firmer legal footing, interior ministry spokesman Steve Alter said.

Germany’s Central Council of Jews said that the previous decree had been “inadequate” and that it had long campaigned for a statutory right.

“It is gesture of decency if both the victims and their descendants are able to claim German citizenship on legal grounds,” said the council’s president Josef Schuster.

READ ALSO: ‘We reclaimed what was taken from my Jewish grandparents – German citizenship’

The difficulties for some in using ancestry claims for citizenship came into focus partly due to the sharp rise in number of applications from Britons evoking Nazi persecution of their ancestors, after the UK voted to leave the European Union.

From 43 such applications in 2015, the number had soared to 1,506 in 2018, according to ministry figures.

In 2019, Austria also changed its citizenship law to allow the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who fled the Nazis to be renaturalised.

Previously, only Holocaust survivors themselves had been able to obtain Austrian nationality.

READ ALSO: British Jews take German path to Europe after Brexit