Guest post By David Lerner
Part 1: Concepts of print & Murder, she wrote.
“Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo. It is the peculiar snare of the perplexed orthodox,” – H.G. Wells in The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman (1914, p. 299)
Even before the release of Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox on Tuesday, there was a lot of discussion on the Internet about it and its claims. Much of it has been positive, but there have been vocally negative opinions of varying degrees of coherency, too. Reading the negative comments, one sees that much has been focused on alleged falsehoods and exaggerations in her writing and interviews. I do not believe she is lying.
In this and subsequent posts, I will strive to explain my position to the best of my ability.
Disclaimer: Deborah Feldman is a friend of mine. I grew up Hasidic, (Chabad,) attended yeshiva, got semicha and am currently “OTD” (Off Their Derech). That is my context. I have biases, just like we all do; I don’t believe in hiding them, especially when defending something where my impartiality can be called into question.
Concepts of print
When a child is at the stage educators call “emergent literacy,” it is important to teach them about the “concepts of print”: A book is read from start to finish, the text is read instead of the pictures, we read (depending on the language) from left-to-right, etc. This is foundational knowledge. As we get older we still need to have concepts of print; we need to know what we are reading. Depending on what one reads, it is read differently; you wouldn’t read Game of Thrones the same way you would a history textbook. As my education department head drilled into us, “context is everything.”
What is the context of Unorthodox? It’s a memoir. (Which is different than an autobiography. That context also serves as a response to those wondering why she doesn’t describe much of her post-Williamsburg life.) Feldman is telling us her story as she remembers it; she isn’t writing a treatise on Satmar Hasidim which would be an entirely different type of book. When one writes memories, it is entirely possible that some things might be inaccurate. For example: she relates the Talmudic tale of Rabbi Akiva’s wife Rachel waiting twelve years for her husband’s return, the Talmud (Ketubot 62b-63a) tells us it was 24. Does this make Feldman a liar? No. Context is everything.
Murder, she wrote
I’m not going to avoid it or start with an easily refuted claim; I’ll go straight to the red meat sizzling on the fire, the murder. Hella Winston wrote for the Jewish Week on the subject of a covered-up murder Feldman tells us she heard about while living in Airmont. Winston claims that her investigation, documents she has seen and interviews she conducted lead her to believe that Feldman fabricated it. Pretty damning, no?
First off, let me address some observations I have about the article:
? As someone who has edited and researched for (yeshiva) scholarly publications, (yes there are plenty of errors in it, don’t email me about them,) I have a tendency to be skeptical when someone claims to have original documents and does not publish them. When documents are involved, I don’t take people at their word. (If there are legal reasons why they can’t publish them, then it is a somewhat different story. But I reiterate that when it comes to documents claims “I’ll believe it when I see it.”)
? Winston quotes from Feldman’s 2008 post and the comments questioning her claim on her (now defunct) blog, but ignores the comments supporting her. “Every hatzolah member in Monroe and some in Monsey know of this story. I was able to verify this story within 24 hours of reading it here.” True, the skeptical comments and those claiming it was a suicide outnumber those supporting Feldman’s version, but neglecting to mention it is telling.
? Nobody worth mention disputes the fact that sexual abuse is systemically covered up in those communities; is it that far a stretch to assume a murder could be covered up, too? Death certificates and police reports (that still haven’t been published) could have been written after the boy was in the ground, no? Are cover-ups unprecedented in the Hasidic community? Are bribes? Before anyone claims I’m weaving conspiracies, let me say that I’m not claiming that’s how it went down. I have no idea how it happened. These are just my thoughts when reviewing the story.
At the end of the day, for Feldman to be telling the truth, it doesn’t matter whether it was a murder or a suicide. Remember, context is everything. Its context in the book is Feldman hearing that this happened, not an eyewitness account. It goes into what she felt about the community after hearing this. Her feelings are valid whether what she heard happened or not.
I’ll close with a quote from Feldman in an email to HasidicNews.com: “The way I related that story in the book was exactly the way it happened to me: in a conversation. I described a dialogue word for word in which my husband told me the story his brother had told him. I made no claims about the story itself, or if it was true, I just described hearing it being told to me and my reaction to that telling. It was more about the conversation than the actual story. Since then I’ve received a lot of messages about that story; some people seem convinced it was a murder, others are inclined to dismiss it as a suicide. Either way it’s tragic, but again, I don’t make any claims as to its veracity. I hope someone does uncover the truth though.”
I hope so, too.
David Lerner is a former Yeshiva bochur who studied in Tomchei Temimim, Lubavitch – Morristown, NJ and received his semicha in Sydney, Australia. Lerner currently lives in North Carolina and is studying for his teaching licensure and Masters of Art in Teaching
Next post: NY Post, reliable or repugnant & Get a brain, morans [sic].