How Ex-Frum Memoirs Became New York Publishing’s Hottest New Trend
A spate of new books tells the stories of men and women who leave ultra-Orthodoxy for risky, rewarding, bewildering everyday life
Much in the same way that Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint became a defining monologue for so many Jewish American males, many of the writers interviewed for this story cited Auslander’s memoir as particular inspiration to them, both personally and professionally, as they grappled with defining their post-frum narratives.
“If that’s true, I’m delighted and incredibly gratified if the book has made even one person feel just a little bit better,” said Auslander. “That was all I wanted to do: to let someone know what it was like to believe in a Bastard Creator, a Hateful All-Knowing, to just convey the emotional, mental torture of that sort of theological OCD and its effect on one’s life. I’d read many books about God and man’s relationship to Him/Her/It, but I’d never read one that accurately portrayed the terror that I felt about God, the fear I was intentionally raised to have.”
He continued, “That the God of strict religious belief is implacable should only make it that much easier to tell him to fuck off. He’s gonna be pissed off no matter what you do.”
Yet because the memoir’s subjective nature and its largely introspective recollections of past events and memories is clearly vulnerable to embellishment, either for literary effect or from the haziness of time, the veracity and the integrity of memoirists is often called into question—an effect that is only magnified when memoirists are perceived as attacking the tight-knit communities in which they grew up. After reporting by the blog FailedMessiah.com—which covers crime and controversy in the ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox communities—as well as Winston in The Jewish Week, a firestorm of controversy erupted around Feldman’s book from rankled family and other members of the Hasidic community, who accused her of falsifying facts and events. A blog called “Deborah Feldman Exposed” went to tenacious lengths to discredit Feldman, pointing to, among other things, her omissions of the existence of a younger sister and her attendance at a more liberal, non-Hasidic school before the enrolling in the strict Satmar school described in the book.
Feldman was forced to release a statement amid the backlash testifying to her memoir’s accuracy. “I have offered the reader experiences that were most important to me, all the while trying my best to protect the privacy of people I cared about,” she wrote. “I prefer to avoid further speculating on the personal lives of people who have not invited the kind of public scrutiny I am allowing for myself.”
Even before her own memoir is released, Vincent faces similar challenges to her credibility. Vincent’s father, Rabbi Yisroel Miller—with whom she no longer speaks—told me that while he does not know the content of his daughter’s memoir, any allegations others have told him in his daughter’s name are “simply false.”
“Regarding her teenage years, it is clear to me that she does not, or perhaps is not always able to, separate her imaginings from the facts,” he said. “Leah first came under the care of a psychiatrist when she was 13, and over the years she was in treatment for serious disorders and self-destructive behaviors. As painful as the situation is to our family, we hope that her gaining the media attention she has craved for so long will bring her some measure of peace. We will continue to love her, always.”
Far from being fazed by accusations that she has distorted the truth in any way, Vincent says she, along with many of her peers, has frequently been called crazy or lying for speaking about the experiences that led to leaving Orthodoxy. “I would love to see a more substantial discussion with the ultra-Orthodox community about the content of my book and similar stories,” she commented.
For Winston, the feedback she received claiming she altered or created events was mostly because, she said, people simply couldn’t believe them of religious communities that tout extreme piety.
“I had a very minor character in my book who spoke of being molested at a communal mikveh, and some readers said something like that would never happen,” recalled Winston. “Of course, so many news stories since then have reported that this was not an isolated incident, but something that is much more common than many people could believe.”
Certainly, the 24/seven rapid pace of digital news coverage has increasingly revealed the public cracks in the community’s veneer and prevented the once large-scale cover-ups of communal foibles: sex abuse, rabbinic misdeeds, and other scandals. Reporters have seized upon and often sensationalized several particularly lurid stories from the Hasidic world, like the tragic murder of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky by another Jew in Boro Park, and the trial of Nechemya Weberman, a Satmar Hasid from Williamsburg who was found guilty of sexually abusing a young girl he was supposedly counseling.
Between news reports, websites like Deen’s Unpious, and often-anonymous blogs and chat rooms where members of Hasidic communities share their own thoughts and experiences, it is hard for the ultra-Orthodox and outsiders alike to see the frum and secular worlds as entirely separate from each other, which in turn may make it easier for readers from all walks of life to connect to the universal elements in these memoirs. Winston pointed to the enthusiasm people have for coming-of-age stories, citing the many letters and emails she unexpectedly received from gay men and women, most of whom had nothing to do with the Orthodox Jewish world, after Unchosen was published. “It makes sense, because both populations risk losing their friends and family because of their ‘coming out’ journeys and defining themselves independently of how they were raised,” she said thoughtfully. “A lot of people from all walks of life identify with that struggle.”
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