Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Explosive: Court Documents Undercut Core of New Best Selling Book

Explosive: Court Documents Undercut Core of New Best Selling Book

By: Yossi Gestetner

Court documents dated late 2003 which followed a custody request, challenge the authenticity of the recently best-selling memoir, “Unorthodox,” which was authored by Ms. Deborah Feldman.

In the book, the author fails to mention that her mother, who according to the book left the Hasidic Community latest 1990, actually gave birth to another girl in November 1994. When challenged as to why she omitted the existence of a younger sister that was born to the same set of parents five years after the mother ‘abandoned’ the family, the author responded (in a March 2nd blog post) that her sister is still a minor and therefore she did not mention her.

This feeble answer left many people wondering why the author didn’t allude to this fact by simply stating in the book, “I have a younger sister that (until several months ago) lived with my mother.”

Well, the reasons for this omission are surprising:

1)    The author notes (pg. 4) that before writing the book, she asked her mother why she did not take her to live with her after she left. The author laments that the mother said “she had no money [to fight] and my father’s family threatened to make her life miserable if she tried to take me away.” This is contrary to what happened with the author’s younger sister who did live with her mother until late 2011. Had readers been aware of this little fact, they would wonder how Deborah’s mother had money to fight for her younger sister and not for Deborah and why the father’s family “threatened to make her mother’s life miserable” only if she fights for Deborah and not her younger sibling. By avoiding to mention a sister, Deborah paved the way to create falsehoods as to why she did not leave to live with her mother and to paint her family as radically anti-women; who suppressed a lesbian-woman who chose to leave for freedom.

2)    By omitting the existence of a younger sister that was born in late 1994, Deborah can perpetuate the all important component of a drama story: The mother ‘abandoned’ the family when Deborah was a mere toddler, which is to say latest 1990. But of course, with a sister born when Deborah was seven-eight, the falsehood flies out the window. Besides, Deborah’s mother attests in an internet post in the summer of 2010 that she left the family “seven years ago,” which is to say in late 2003 when Deborah was sixteen. Finally, how did Deborah show up in this photo at age seven standing in front of smiling parents if her mother had “abandoned” her a few years earlier?

3)    Most explosive of all are court papers dating back to late 2003, signed by now-former Judge the Honorable Paul Grosvenor. It shows clearly that the mother who – according to Feldman ‘had no money to fight’ – actually dragged the father to court asking for custody of BOTH children! This means, she had money to fight; and to fight for both, and was not an ‘abandoning’ person to begin with. After back-and-forth proceedings, both sides came to a court-approved agreement which stipulates that the Zaidy and his son, the father of Feldman, got the two things they wanted: a) The younger sister, then only nine years old, should continue attending a Jewish school and b) that the father should have visiting rights. The mother as part of the willful deal agreed to both, but as for the latter, she wanted a third party to supervise the visitations. The third party was to be… The Zaidy! Apparently, the mother had no issue that the Zaidy, this supposed abuser who ‘threatened to make life miserable,’ should be the one overseeing the visits.

The likely reason why Deborah’s mother did not put up much of a fight for Deborah is she was sixteen-seventeen at time of the court proceeding with a mind of her own. But more importantly is an event which dates back to the second half of the 1990s when Deborah was 10 or 11: Her mother hit her so severely that she ran down the flight of stairs to Bubby and Zaidy’s who lived on flight below. Deborah resolutely stated that she does not want to go back to her mother. Her extended family, which was always there for her, took her in to live with them. From then on, Deborah did not have much to do with her mother except for when her mother came down from the above apartment to check on Deborah and to visit the husband’s extended family.

This undisclosed fact of Deborah life at age ten likely also explains why Feldman conspicuously starts detailing her memoir only from when she was age eleven: It a) permits her to omit the real reason why the family got involved in her life and how she landed up in the care of Bubby and Zaidy, and b) by omitting life before sixth grade the author can sell a narrative of being raised in an extreme Satmar family who wanted to control her and thus the aunt placed her into Satmar school to ‘keep tabs’ on her.

However, as class photos prove, the author actually attended two different schools before her aunt took her into Satmer. She attended Adas Yereim, the most liberal Hasidic school in Williamsburg, and then, until age ten, she attended Bais Yakov of Lower East side, a non-Hasidic Orthodox Jewish school outside of Williamsburg. No extreme Hasidic family sends their kids to either of these schools. Deborah landed up in there because her family is of the most liberal in Williamsburg, and the only reason she ended up in Satmar is because she was likely expelled from both schools. As a result, Satmar the school where her the ‘bad’ aunt was the long-time principal, was the only school willing to accept this troubled girl into their system under the wings of the aunt.

By omitting these important details, Deborah successfully distorted history to suit her needs. Indeed, no good deed goes unpunished.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The second coming of James Frey? Hasidic Jews charge that one of their own has published a memoir full of lies

The second coming of James Frey? Hasidic Jews charge that one of their own has published a memoir full of lies

70245722.jpegNote: This is a longer version of an article that appears in today's Daily News.
The memoir is a devilish genre. The pull of embellishment must be great, for even the most ordinary life has its dull moments. Why subject your readers to the mundane, when one or two novelistic flourishes can add the necessary sheen? (Photo: Simon & Schuster)
And calling an enhanced memoir what it is – a novel – won’t do. Weaned on reality shows and social networking, today’s readers demand lived experiences. Invention doesn't cut it anymore.
Thus we arrive at James Frey, crying on Oprah’s couch because he had been unable to admit that “A Million Little Pieces” was not quite the truthful account he had claimed it was.

And thus we arrive, also, at Deborah Feldman, driving Barbara Walters to the verge of tears on “The View” on Feb 14.

But not because Feldman’s memoir, “Unorthodox,” had been revealed as a work of fiction. The women of “The View,” Walters especially, had the highest praise for her book, which they described as an honest account of the insular Hasidic community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that Feldman left after being forced into marriage at 17 and motherhood at 19.

But while Frey and Feldman could not come from more different backgrounds, they seem to have arrived in the same place, two memoirists having to fend off damning accusations of deceit.

2blog-unorthodox-2712_1.jpegFuror among Hasidic Jews has been building long before Feldman published her book – her writing initially appeared on her blog, Hasidic-Feminist. Now that her book is receiving acclaim (with reviews calling her book “harrowing” and “poignant”), they are acutely angry that Feldman has gained literary success by portraying them as a backwards, repressive community.
And while some of what the Jewish blogosphere has said about Feldman is, itself, little more than vitriol, serious accusations have come out – on blogs like Failed Messiah and Exposing the Lies and Fabrications of Deborah Feldman, not to mention The Jewish Week and the venerable Forward, which called her book “more than ‘Unorthodox.’”
This much appears to be almost certainly true: Deborah Feldman, now 25, was born to Eugen and Shoshana Berkovic of Penn St., Brooklyn.  They were Satmar Jews – an insular sect that settled in Williamsburg after the Holocaust and lives in what some call a wholesale rejection of modernity.

Feldman’s father has a low IQ and has held only menial jobs. Feldman went to the UTA Yeshiva, a highly religious school where Yiddish was spoken and secular literature was forbidden.

At 17, she was married to a man named Eli. At 19, she had a son. She and Eli moved to Kiryas Joel, in upstate New York, which they felt was a less suffocating environment than Brooklyn.

But by 23, she had enough. She left her husband, taking her son with her. She took writing classes at Sarah Lawrence College. She got a book deal with Simon & Schuster. Now, she is just another ordinary New Yorker.

Well, not ordinary. Most aspiring writers would murder to publish with the kind of publicity Feldman has received.

The problem is that much of her memoir may not be true, according to ardent critics. These include family members, neighbors and even New York State authorities.

369115_1378538278_284795804_n.jpegIn the book, Feldman charges her mother – who was apparently burdened by the pressures of Satmar life – with a “mysterious disappearance” when Feldman was a toddler.
In fact, it takes about 30 seconds to find Shoshana Berkovic on both Twitter and Facebook. She is a science teacher at New Utrecht High School and does not appear to have ever left Brooklyn. She did divorce her husband, as court records indicate. But that was in 2010, more than a decade after Feldman accuses her mother with leaving her behind. (Shoshana Berkovic / Facebook)

Feldman leaves out another relevant fact about her family – that she has a sister, now 17 and living with her mother. For reasons I cannot quite fathom, she entirely deletes her sister’s existence from what is supposed to be a truthful account of her life.

And while Feldman waxes poetic about how she had to sneak  secular literature (“Reading an English book is…a welcome mat put out for the devil”), neighbor Pearl Engleman distinctly remembers Berkovic taking both of her daughters to the public library on Fridays. “Flat-out lies” is what Engleman calls Feldman’s description of her family life.

Feldman writes in great detail about her strict religious education in Williamsburg. But she fails to mention that she only attended the supposedly restrictive UTA for four years – and that only after being kicked out of a much more lax yeshiva in Manhattan, Bas Yaakov of the lower East Side. A cousin says that Feldman was expelled for making comments about sex.

But this is the worst of it: Feldman alleges that when she and her husband were living in Kiryas Joel, Eli learned from his brother Cheskel that a 13 year old boy had been murdered by his father for masturbating. The father, according to Feldman’s account, cut off the boy’s penis and let him bleed to death. The Jewish ambulance service, known as Hatzalah, supposedly helped cover up the crime.

Fascinating, but at the very least dubious. As Hella Winston of The Jewish Week first reported and the Daily News confirmed, the young man in question was seven years older than Feldman reported, and evidence from the coroner, the New York State police, ambulance workers who reported the crime and family members of the dead man all overwhelmingly suggest that the young man (an allegedly troubled individual) died from slitting his own throat.

An uncle of the dead man calls Feldman a “psychopath.”

And yet she persist in her claims. A post on her Tumblr reads, “I can only be responsible for the things I write. I cannot be responsible for what reporters write. Misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and just plain getting the facts wrong is common in journalism. But anything I sign my name to, I will stand by.”

Nor will Simon & Schuster make her available for an interview. Her publicist, Kate Gales, sent me the following statement: “Deborah Feldman’s 'Unorthodox' is an inspiring memoir that recounts, from the author’s perspective, her experiences as a child growing up in the Satmar community, and her eventual departure from that life. We are confident that 'Unorthodox' accurately presents her deeply personal recollections of that journey.”

But that has hardly quelled critics. “Doesn’t Simon & Schuster check its facts?” wonders Engleman.

Feldman seemingly deals with that question in “Unorthodox” when she describes a novel she enjoyed as a teenager: “Even if the book claims it’s a novel, I read it like a breathtaking piece of raw journalism, because the stories detailed within are so current and real, they could be happening to me, and I know that the author must have at least based the book on her intimate life experiences.”

Not an answer that will comfort her many critics.

Exposing the Lies and Fabrications of Deborah Feldman: The NY Daily News: Unorthodox is a Novel and not a Memoir

Exposing the Lies and Fabrications of Deborah Feldman: The NY Daily News: Unorthodox is a Novel and not a Memoir