Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sharing Stories With Deborah Feldman

Discussing plans for our futures, finding the humor in our similar and traumatic pasts and enjoying uncommon empathy, Deborah Feldman and I had coffee on the Upper East Side on a bright Friday morning. My time with her was a refreshing pleasure and an honor. She is the author of the New York Times bestselling Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots. Deborah helped me with something that I’ve been trying to navigate lately. Deborah reminded that I’m not an ex gay survivor, an ex Chabad, a gay man, a Jew, an activist, etc.; she told me that who I am is just Chaim Levin who just also happens to have an interesting story to share and an opportunity to inspire change. She insisted that we all have our own lives and personalities that we must care for, cultivate and celebrate.

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.

9 comments:

  1. "Our stories belong to us, and it is our right to find in them sadness and inspiration and even humor." Well said. United we can have a stronger voice.

    To those who question yours and Deborah's motives, or claim that your accounts are inaccurate are missing the point.

    To them I would respond: is it just a coincidence that Chaim Levin, Deborah Feldman, PearlPerry Reich(and the rest of us formerly religious Jews), who have never met each other and have all been raised in distinctly different religious sects all have the same complaints about ultra-orthodoxy? Namely, the parallel stories of concealed abuse, disguised mental illness, deprivation of books or access to information, poor education, subjugation of women, and just all around intolerance of anything.

    Is it a coincidence that these are the same stories shared by youth who escape other fundamentalist religious group? Hardly.

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    1. You must not know much about the world these people have been brought up in if you are bunching these people together. If Chaim Levin and his family were to have been living the kind of lifestyle they live in Crown Heights in Williabsburg / Satmar where the other two were brought up, they would have been considered reform Jews at best as they are modern and open minded compared with any family in williamsburg or boro park.

      Chaim's story is diferent. He was brought up in a predominantly orthodox neighborhood with access to the world at his fingertips. He had unfiltered internet in his house from the day it was available. His family had a membership at the Brooklyn public library etc. all things that in williamsburg and boro park is a no no... He was not sexually abused as a child.

      Chaim says he is gay. Chaim knows that in the Torah G-d forbids the act of a man being intimate with another man. Chaim also knows of the majority in crown heights who do not shun him and embarrass him. I feel bad for him that his family who love him dearly took the advise to send him to people not in (Crown Heights) to seek some sort of therapy that would "heal" him... I also believe as do most open minded people in crown heights that what Molly Resnik did to him is absolutely wrong!

      However, his complaint about the fact that the school his parents chose to send him to didn't teach him the basics of english is completely out of context. With a bit of growing up he will learn a bit about parenting and education of children.

      Parents each are faced with the task of giving their children the tools to succeed in life. Each parent can and will look at the meaning of "success" differently:

      Some will success as in their child making money. a lot. Others will see success as someone who enriches other peoples lives. People of faith will see success for their child in their dedication to what they believe in. To each their own. If a parent believes for whatever reason that for the child's most younger years it is important that he or she spend the time learning about faith, dedication to G-d and prayer, that is not abuse, that is in their view giving them the best tools to really "succeed" in life.

      If the child then grows up and decides that he or she differ with their parents and have a different version of "success", they can pursue that path. But the shouldn't go blaming the whole world for the fact that in their new direction in life the school that they were sent to as a child didn't give them the tools to succeed in their new found meaning of "success".

      Obviously they will find a sympathetic ear from anyone who doesn't see the meaning of "success" in life as their parents did. But that doesn't make it wrong. Unless this is all about public opinion...

      People like Chaim (the Wiliamsburg crowd is a whole different story...) need to man up. They need to come to terms with the fact that their new ideas in life are not the absolute truth and there may be a number of truths out there and each should be respected. Becoming an activist to help victims is good thing. But in the case of what he was taught or not taught as a child, he is simply wrong. He can choose to live life as he pleases but he is being disrespectful to those who feel that this type of education is integral to a healthy life and a truly "successful" life.

      nothing personal.

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  2. Once you have shared your secrets you are free... The truth has set you free. People never like the person who speaks out and rocks the boat. I think because they are trying to stay above water in a rocking boat. The smartest people in history question and challenge. Why would a community that holds people back want to be questioned? They'd rather you ignorant and follow. You chose to question and make a better life. I wish you peace and happiness in your newfound freedom!

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  3. ...those that do not want stories of harm shared to everything to make sure that harm does not occur...
    Powerful words, sent a chill to my very core. Knowledge is the only way to make these dreams a reality. Children of suppressed societies everywhere (Orthodox, Sharia, Catholic, etc.) need to be set free to make educated choices. If one chooses to live in a suppressed and abusive culture, that is to be respected, but children who are raised to hate and fear everyone who is not like them are being abused in the worst sense of the word.

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  4. wow you guys look so cute together.

    nu maybe there is hope for a wedding

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  5. A WEDDING? HE'S GAY!

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  6. he is not gay' he forss himself to it,

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  7. Learn how to fucken spell!

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