Esty’s empowered outburst is one of many differences between the onscreen story and the one Feldman told in her bestselling memoir. Both women were raised in the Satmar subset of Hasidism and then rebelled against its rituals and restrictions, especially for women, who typically enter arranged marriages in their teens and are expected to swiftly start a family. But the details vary — from the secrets each keeps (Esty hides her singing, Feldman hid her secular library books) to how each breaks free (Esty, secretly pregnant, flees to Berlin; Feldman, who married at 17 and gave birth to her son when she was 19, landed her book deal at 23, divorced her husband in New York and hid out in Connecticut to escape the Hasidic community's anger over her tell-all memoir before relocating with her son to Berlin).
Feldman tells PEOPLE that she and the series’ creators strayed from her own narrative because they wanted to make Esty’s story “an amalgam of all the common threads we realized when we talked to some of the thousands of others who have left” Hasidism.
"We wanted Esty to be this figure in whom thousands of others who left Hasidic Judaism could see themselves," Feldman says.
But where Feldman says she sees herself and Esty offering a “template for escape,” some see a dangerous “fiction” that could fuel bigotry.
“Deborah’s story, how she perceived things, is extremely different from my life,” says Gitty Weiss, a Hasidic occupational therapist who works in Williamsburg, a community still reeling from a rash of anti-Semitic attacks in the New York City area late last year.
Weiss, 40, who has not read Feldman’s memoir but watched the film version on her non-Hasidic sister's Netflix show, tells PEOPLE that the series, among other faults, wrongly portrays Williamsburg as drab and backward — “giving the impression that the people are lifeless, oppressed and in a cult.”
On screen, says Weiss, Hasidic principles and practices “have been dismorphed from a culture that is beautiful and diverse into an ugly caricature. Coming out at a time when there’s such hate for Hasidic — for visibly Jewish — people, it’s a slap in the face.”
Feldman says she’s heard it all before: from Hasidic Jews “who are outraged” to “liberal or secular Jews who are like, ‘Why are we focusing on the crazies? Then everyone will become anti-Semitic.’ ”
As for Weiss’ point that Unorthodox is diametrically opposed to her own experience, Feldman says: “Of course no one story about someone who’s left the Satmar sect can reflect everyone who lives in the Satmar sect. But the bottom line is that there are many such stories.”
"It’s up to the reader or the [Netflix] watcher to decide if an experience like [mine] would make a woman happy or unhappy," says Feldman.
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