Escaping with literature

First aired on The Current (17/04/12)

When you're a child, and the outside world is largely closed off to you, books can be a vital window into that world and its people and ideas. But what happens when you're barred from reading books? Well, if you're Deborah Feldman, you defy your family and sneak off to the library.

Feldman, 25, grew up in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighbourhood, as part of the strict and extremely conservative Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism. She describes the group as "literally, the most fundamentalist sect in the Jewish world." Reading and learning were for men, while women were destined to become housewives and mothers. In school, she would learn about morality, modesty and the laws governing kosher food and the holy holiday Shabbat.

Feldman would be allowed to venture outside the community, say, to visit a doctor, but to participate in the outside world was forbidden.

"It was painful to be so close to the marvellous world of New York City and not be allowed to join it," Feldman said on The Current during a recent interview. "To know that there are all sorts of people crossing the bridges every day, doing whatever they wanted, free to pursue their dreams and I had to stay in Williamsburg."

She found escape in stolen moments with literature. From detective novels to Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott, Feldman read as often as she could.

"I had to sneak out to go to a library that was as far away from Williamsburg so that no one would see me. Because if I were to be seen going to the library, I would be kicked out of school, I would become like an outcast in the community, my grandparents would never have forgiven me. In fact, one or two times in my childhood I was caught with a book, I received such a lashing, such an outpouring of fury, it made me really scared but worse than that, it made me feel like a really bad person for reading."

She also snuck into her grandfather's book collection to read Hebrew texts like the Talmud, which women were barred from reading, Feldman said. Part of this act of rebellion stemmed from jealousy. Her grandfather would have great discussions about the texts with his male grandchildren and she wanted badly to do the same.

"If I have this brain, I want to use it for something."

But it was a struggle for this intellectually curious woman. At 17, she found herself in an arranged marriage to a man she barely knew, which led to a severe anxiety problem that went undiagnosed. She gave birth to a son two years later and realized she didn't want to raise children in her religion. After much difficulty, she eventually severed ties with her community and chronicled her experiences in the memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.

Feldman's book has become a bestseller and landed her appearances on multiple news programs and shows like The View. It's also led to backlash from members of the Satmar Hasidic community and at least one blog has been created to counter Feldman's account. Interestingly, Feldman sees her own experience and story as not just one about orthodox religion, but part of a much broader one -- that of Brooklyn.

unorthodox-125.jpg"I remember when I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and I realized for the first time that before the Hasidic Jews had arrived in Williamsburg, it had been a home for so many other people. And I felt very connected to the character in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie, because her life felt really similar to mine. Her world was closed because she was poor, and she also sort of used books and education as a way out. And when I read that book I realized that even though the setting of my story is different and unique, I still have a lot in common with people like Francie, with people who grew up in Brooklyn at other times in other eras. So in a way I feel like a bigger part of the Brooklyn story in that sense."