Deborah Feldman grew up in a strictly conservative religious community. Every aspect of her life was governed by complex laws, from how she dressed to what she was allowed to eat. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, but her community spoke Yiddish as its first language. Feldman’s future had already been mapped out for her: she was to enter into an arranged marriage and have children. She was not supposed to question, or doubt, or yearn for something more.
But she always felt different. Through sheer force of character and determination, she left the community at the age of 23 and carved out a successful, independent, life for herself. Now 33, she is a writer living in an apartment in Berlin with her teenage son. She is working on a novel in German, enjoys going to the theatre and has friends from different backgrounds who have become like family.
Feldman’s story might sound familiar if you have spent lockdown bingeing on Netflix: its hit four-part drama Unorthodox, the streaming service’s first Yiddish-language series, is based on her best-selling 2012 memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. The show follows a young Hasidic woman called Esty who flees her husband and the pressures of her Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn to start a new life among musicians in Berlin.
I speak to Feldman on Zoom from her Berlin apartment. She believes that part of the reason the Netflix series attracted such a wide audience is because of the universal nature of the story: Esty might belong to a little-known and highly private, insular community, but she is simply a young woman who is searching for freedom and a new way of living.
Her story also seems particularly relevant now, as Feldman explains: “We are facing an uncertain future. The prospect of freedom has suddenly become different for all of us. There is something about Esty’s journey that is close to home.”
The Netflix series is inspired by Feldman’s memoir, but it is heavily fictionalised – only the parts set in Williamsburg are based on Feldman’s life, and she worked closely with Netflix creators Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski throughout the process to maintain some privacy. Feldman grew up in the Satmar community in Williamsburg, where there are tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews. The Satmar movement’s founding members were Holocaust survivors who had managed to escape to America. The community carries a lot of trauma and it is very important to them that they faithfully preserve the traditions of their Eastern European ancestors, many of whom were killed.
As well as her own story, Feldman wanted the Netflix series to reflect the experiences of others who had left the Hasidic community. “When I left in 2009, there was a very small group of people who had done the same. Today there are thousands of people all over the world. We spoke to many of them to find some kind of common thread.” Feldman believes that technology has accelerated the trend of people considering a different way of life. “If you can Google ‘Is there a God?’ on a smartphone, it becomes more difficult [to stop people from leaving].”
I ask Feldman whether she believes in God, but she does not find it a particularly important question any more. “I don’t think so,” she says. “I don’t really think about God very much. I call myself almost an agnostic, because it’s not very important to me to define whether or not He exists. I’m just going to keep living my life the way it feels authentic.”
She still, however, feels culturally Jewish, even though she is no longer part of a traditional community. “Judaism is a very rich cultural resource, completely apart from religious identity or spirituality. I have a deep relationship with Yiddish literature and religious art in Europe.”
The Netflix series is incredibly moving and eye-opening. I found the memoir inspiring, but much darker. While Esty escapes her marriage after a year and goes to Berlin, Feldman’s exodus was far more drawn out and complicated. It makes it all the more impressive that she managed to leave everything and everyone she had known behind her and start an entirely new life in the modern world. Feldman left the Satmar community to flee an extremely unhappy marriage. She already had a three-year-old son and she had wanted to leave for years, but managed to escape only once she knew she could support herself through a book deal for her memoir, and had the resources to fight a custody battle for her child.
While their stories diverge, the Netflix writers imbued Esty with Feldman’s same spirit and confidence. Feldman and Esty are both highly intelligent and curious. They long to express themselves through art. Esty is a musician, while Feldman is a reader and a writer. Their overwhelming talent drives their desire to leave their communities. It is also their way out. “I know what it is like to yearn for any form of artistic expression,” says Feldman. “All art forms offer us the same feeling of escape and authenticity. It is also why art is considered threatening in all religious societies, because it encourages individuality.”
Feldman was not allowed to read secular books when she was growing up, but she would sneak into a public library and hide novels such as Little Women and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn under her bed. It meant that she was much better at reading in English than her peers, which would eventually help her to leave. After Feldman got married, she pretended to her husband that she was enrolling in basic bookkeeping lessons. Instead, she began taking literature classes at Sarah Lawrence College. She started an anonymous blog about life as a Hasidic woman and one of her friends introduced her to a literary agent who encouraged her to write a memoir.
Feldman’s early years are still a strong part of her identity. She did not grow up with TV shows, but she does know about Yiddish literature. “I am always going to be someone who has a foot in both worlds,” she says. “I don’t know anything about music from the 90s, but it doesn’t matter to me. I know I will never catch up with popular culture, but I have my own culture.
“I gained a vast cultural resource that my work will always draw on. I took a value system with me that I still have, which doesn’t have very much to do with the Western world. One of the reasons why I felt so comfortable in Berlin is because Berlin is the only city in the West that does not really reflect capitalist values.”
Before Feldman moved to Berlin, she lived in Manhattan. “I didn’t make friends easily in New York, but I made friends on my first day in Berlin in a café and within a week we were this inseparable group,” she recalls. “In Berlin, everyone is sort of rootless. There are no pre-established structures that you have to break your way into.
“I think that if you grow up in the spiritual world and then you live in Manhattan, which is a capitalist paradise, it is very jarring because everyone around you is chasing success, status, fame and money and you already know that none of those things will fulfil you or give you that sense of peace that you were raised to believe in. In Berlin, I feel like the people around me are much more interested in ideas about solidarity and purpose.”
In her memoir, Feldman talks about experiencing a kind of “hunger”, or desire for something else, while she was in the religious community. As a young girl, she was consumed by an insatiable desire for knowledge, creativity – something more outside her everyday existence. I wonder whether she still feels this. “There is always that last little speck which is almost like a shadow of what’s left over. It is not the hunger in itself, but it’s the imprint that it leaves on your soul. It is something in me which connects to powerful works of writing and art.”
Even if Feldman will never fully leave her past behind, her ambition and ingenuity have taken her further than most people would get in a lifetime. She had the strength to see she did not belong and that she and her son deserved happiness and freedom. She is most proud of the opportunities and the future she has given him.
“I feel very fulfilled,” she says. “I am very happy in my current life, it’s funny, people ask me if I have any dreams and I always say, ‘Well I think I achieved my share of dreams and 10 times more’, and this led to this very strange sensation of being 33 years old and feeling like it’s good enough – like you’ve already accomplished enough.”
Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman is published by Simon & Schuster (£10.99)