Deborah had entered mainstream media a few months ago with her fascinating memoir. I haven’t had a chance to finish reading her book yet; in fact, I just started the other day. But with every page, I feel more and more drawn into this incredible story of bravery, courage and survival. She recounts the struggles she endured while growing up within the insular Satmar community in Williamsburg and her decision to leave. Her writing is brilliant, genuine and accessible. Her entire life came under scrutiny when she went public, and some of the things that people have written about her were nothing short of repugnant. I believe Deborah Feldman is a hero.
I had been shocked at how many people were ready to go so far to question her motives or the validity and truth of her experiences, including people who were themselves victims of these communities and who had also left but were nevertheless still critical. I had heard more bad than good about this woman who was experiencing sudden fame, or infamy. There were some allegations that some of her experiences were inaccurate. Some people saw her memoir as a direct attack against their culture because she shared her personal memories of the abuse she faced in a community with great gender inequality and her decision to leave her community with her son and make a better future for her and her son.
I had been interested in Deborah but was hesitant to write about her. In general, I like to know someone person I'm writing about. I had felt deep sense of pride and resonation with her for what she did. She made the decision that her story — the story of someone who was raised within a deeply controlling community which disrespects women — needed to be shared, and she bravely decided to tell it all honestly without holding back.
As someone from a similar community and who has been attacked for exposing problems in it, I deeply related to her desire to shed light on these dark and dangerous realities that harmed her in the past, but more importantly, continue to harm people until this day. I have gotten into quite a bit of hot water recently for writing about the Chabad education I received in the Huffington Post — an education system that handicaps its students because the curriculum does include any “secular”, academic studies. I've been criticized because I took these story to the "outside" world, with the hope of inspiring change by raising awareness. My other work in the It Gets Better project and writing about LGBTQ problems, abuse and reparative “therapy” within the Orthodox community had also resulted in venomous attacks. But, it is worth it because discussions are starting and change is occurring. I empathized with Deborah for the nasty, baseless criticism she received, applauded her courage despite it all and hoped to meet her someday.
Everytime I meet a "celebrity" (a term Deborah despises), I get a little excited and farklempt; that moment when I get to tell them how much I admire them for their work is always kickass. When I finally saw Deborah, I was overwhelmed with a deep sense of honor — honor to meet so monumentally accomplished already by the age of 25. It's not just that she is young; it's the fact that, like myself, she had no tools or preparation for the "real world". With limited education, no resources or family support, she managed to stay sane (which is big for starters), raise her son and write her first book, and continues doing what she is passionate about, writing.
The past six months for me especially have been non-stop activism and promotion. I am amazed at how much I have been able to accomplish just by telling people about me and just sharing my authentic self with them. At certain points, I felt like the activism and promotion was taking over my life, but I continued my work and talking to others about it because it is my passion and I hope I can do my part to help others. At the same time though, Deborah is right, I was starting to lose part of my personality and authentic self because of the attention, criticism and not having enough time for me. I plan to heed Deborah’s advice.
I learned many things from Deborah. She is a hero of mine despite and maybe even because of what many other people think or say about her. People have attacked me and what I’ve written, especially the ones who know that my stories are true, like those who glibly acknowledged “[...]true[,] teachers hit the students[...]” and “[...]I find it really funny, I used to have my fingers hit with a rule from Rabbi E. [....] ive seen some major beatings [at the school....]” but criticized me for mentioning child abuse at Oholei Torah, the school I went to. I do not think I will ever be able to understand why it is those who know the stories are true are often the harshest critics. Whatever the case is, I think we all owe thanks to Deborah for helping to pave the way for bringing awareness to problems that are ignored and for proving that it is indeed possible to succeed despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Whether it is visible right now or not, Deborah has gotten a conversation started by sharing her story.
Our stories belong to us, and it is our right to find in them sadness and inspiration and even humor. I encourage those who do not want stories of harm shared to do everything to make sure that harm does not occur and there are no longer any such stories to share. Until that time, it is not only our inherent right to share our stories, it is our obligation to share otherwise ignored stories of harm to bring awareness so that there can be change and others can find hope and might be spared.