By Harriet P. Gross
Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday has come and gone once again, and with it came my annual remembrance of the saddest words I ever heard. It was many years ago in Chicago; the first member of color was attending his first meeting of Mensa, the high-I.Q. society, and what he said as he introduced himself was: “I’m smart enough to be white.”
Usually I let that bruising, tear-infused memory enter my consciousness for just a moment before fading away for another year. But this year, it resonates with me in a newer context.
I recently read “Unorthodox,” Deborah Feldman’s scathing personal expose of her life within, and “escape” from, New York’s Satmar Chasidic community. And I’ve been wondering if what all her words really boil down to is: “I’m smart enough to be a man.” Or perhaps, “I’m smart enough to be a woman in a freer culture than this.”
I have a couple of concerns after finishing her book. First, that any non-Jewish readers without other knowledge of our very diverse people may think all Jews are like those Feldman knows so well and describes so pejoratively. Second, that the “liberated” Feldman may find in herself an ongoing war between her own two worlds: the repressive one she has left and the wide-open one in which she has chosen to live.
Satmar devotion is practiced in hopes of bringing closer the Messiah’s coming through absolute acceptance of God’s word and will. The men study the first, interpreting it strictly, then imposing their interpretations upon their wives and their children, as well as themselves. As for the second, it covers everything that happens — even disasters like the Holocaust are “God’s will,” brought about as punishment for Jews’ non-compliant behavior.
Feldman’s revolt emerges early from a childhood that repressed her desires to learn about any bigger world. She broke some rules, like secretly reading secular books — mostly American girlhood classics such as “Little Women” — then suffering doubly, from guilt at her own disobedience more than raw fear of being caught.
She chafed, physically and emotionally, under the heavy burden of the restrictive “modest” clothing she and all her contemporaries had to wear.
And she was psychologically astute: As she grew, longing for non-existent snacks between mealtimes in her spartan home, she also understood that this was not really what she craved: “There is a yawning chasm in me that threatens to grow wider if I don’t stuff the gap with as much as I can manage. Food is a temporary fix, but it’s better than staying with the emptiness.”
Later, as a married woman, there is a reprise: “On Shabbos afternoon, as I sit on the lawn surrounded by my neighbors and listen to their idle gossip, I am reminded of the yawning gap that is my life, of the burning hunger inside that gnaws at me…I think I was meant for something different than this.”
Feldman was a bride at 17, matched by her family to a young man she spent only five minutes talking to before their wedding day. She resolved to try, for appearances’ sake rather than her own: “I am a good girl, and I will make everyone proud of me. No one will be able to criticize my family when I am a successful, obedient housewife.”
Of course, this was not to be. Eli was not the sweet, understanding partner she had hoped for. Eventually she gave birth to a son — sparing the reader none of her difficulties along the way. Eventually, also, she broke with her past, starting with clandestine enrollment in an adult education program where her way with words and her unusually compelling story were recognized and first put together into what became this book.
Feldman records a final visit to a school friend who once shared her love of forbidden books. “Mindy’s husband disapproved. She stopped reading and busied herself with having children. ‘It’s what God wants,’ she said. But God was not the one who wanted Mindy to have children. Her fate was being decided by the people around her. … ”
In her new secular life, Feldman makes her own decisions. She says she remains Jewish because of her son, maintaining a kosher kitchen and raising him Modern Orthodox, “to keep the differences between his father’s lifestyle and mine as minimally confusing as possible.”
I wish her luck. And I hope her second memoir, which she’s working on now, will assure me that she’s indeed smart enough to build the fulfilling life she always dreamed of.