Unorthodox: The Sarah Lawrence Archetype

Unorthodox recounts Deborah Feldman’s exodus from Hasidic Williamsburg—a world both familiar and alien to secular readers—and her pilgrimage to Manhattan and Sarah Lawrence College. Although the media portrays Feldman as an anomaly, she uses archetypes to create a real-life fairy tale familiar to any Sarah Lawrence student who has asked to bum a cigarette outside of the library, or had to explain to their Facebook friends that they aren’t gay. (Yes, Feldman describes bumming a cigarette in the book! Yes, when she tells her mom she’s attending Sarah Lawrence, her mom asks if she’s gay!)

Many of these archetypes echo Roald Dahl’s Matilda. As Matilda’s parents preferred their daughter watch television than attend school, Feldman’s Buddy and Zeidy, her grandparents, enrolled her in a Hasidic school that chastised readers and glorified husband-seekers. Feldman quotes Matilda to express how she felt in Williamsburg: “Matilda longed for her parents to be good and loving and understandable and honorable and intelligent. The fact that they were none of these things was something she had to put up with.” Her book succeeds because she never vilifies her elders; she laments that they could never give her, or themselves, more.

Feldman’s acknowledgements paint Sarah Lawrence as the teacher that gave her the love and acceptance Williamsburg withheld. In Bronxville, she finds her Ms. Penny. She writes, “My gratitude to Sarah Lawrence, the institution that gave me my first opportunity to make something of myself, is indescribable.”

The expensive price and under-publicized financial aid obscures Sarah Lawrence’s status as one of the first colleges to cater to minors and perceive students as individuals. By catering, I don’t mean instructing women to teach children the alphabet–I mean that each person isn’t the same, that each individual has different goals and dreams that can’t be lumped into standard curriculums and multiple choice tests. I mean that women like Feldman’s Bubby deserve to voice their experiences, regardless if a bunch of white men prefer if female Holocaust victims bake matzav. Sarah Lawrence has always given a voice to the silenced. And I don’t mean a “freedom writers” voice; I mean a loud, confident, I-will-succeed-no-matter-what-the-fuck-your-privlidged-ass-tells-me-because-I-deserve-everything-you-have voice.

You might be white. You might be rich. You’ve probably never experienced the restrictions Feldman endured as a Hasidic woman, but as she writes, “Besides the obvious things, like bigger homes and nicer clothes, in many ways these women feel as trapped as I do. We have all come to Sarah Lawrence for the same reason, to find a way out to something more satisfying.”

I’ve never gone to temple, but I grew up as a white first-generation American in Miami: a city where you either open a luxury business or become a coke whore. Although I attended a private school that taught me to follow the acceptance letter from the school that rejected the most applicants, I followed my intuition, like Feldman, and went to Sarah Lawrence.

My first year, I told Julie Abraham I knew nothing about gay culture and felt like I had no culture. At Vassar or another more mainstream liberal arts school, I would have been stuck in English 1; at Sarah Lawrence Julie fought with my don to change my schedule so I could be in queer literature course and learn what I need to learn. In Unorthodox, a poetry teacher named James teaches Feldman that she is intelligent and capable of reading poetry. The professor knows about Hasidic culture and recommends she read Yiddish poets for conference, as her classmates explore their own poetic interests.

Core classes create much needed clones, like doctors; conferences create individuals. In the last three months the New York Times has written about two recent conference system products: Feldman, the first writer to detail an escape from a Hasidic community, and Alexander Dimitrov, an alum who founded a groundbreaking poetry salon, becoming one of America’s most important young poets. Like Feldman, his writing aims to return danger and glamour to books, as other programs’ alums crank out timid couplets aimed to please the elite instead of his or her individual soul.

Last week on The View, Barbara Walters asked Feldman about her education, or as Walters called it, “the thing we have in common.” Feldman explained that on her first day she spotted the Barbara Walters Gallery in Heimbold. She asked a student who Walters was. Shocked that she wouldn’t know whom the first major female broadcast journalist was, the student brought Feldman to the library computer lab and showed her YouTube clips from Walters’s career. Watching the videos, Feldman decided that if women like Barbara Walters—who grew up in a time where all society repressed women—could attend Sarah Lawrence and achieve career goals no previous women had achieved, Feldman could write for a living.

A few months ago, my classmate said that Sarah Lawrence was more esteemed during Walters’s time, that our acceptance rate and SAT optional status damaged our reputation. This student lamented that her aunt chose between Radcliffe and Sarah Lawrence. “Radcliffe was the female Harvard!” she said. “It was,” I said. “It was till Harvard turned the school into a glorified women’s studies department!” But she continued to complain about our reputation and failed to realize that even if Sarah Lawrence girls once chose between SLC and the “Harvard of women’s schools,” they were still choosing between schools meant for a lower class: women.

Unlike other women’s colleges, we never accepted boys for their dicks or allowed an Ivy League school to buy us, turning us into a glorified women’s studies department We’ve struggled to gain applicants on and off for thirty years, but we never changed our ways. We said ‘whatever’ when the New York Times called us a gay school in the eighties, scaring applicants away.

It’s true; we’re now Hampshire’s foremother instead of Vassar’s queer sibling. That’s okay! Ambitious runaways will always flock to Sarah Lawrence. Who else would allow them to trust their intuition? It’s our unorthodox ideals that will give them chance, telling them their voice is worthy of the page, turning men and women society disposed into first class citizens with indifferent attitudes and glamorous winter coats. Sarah Lawrence pumps out individuals instead of clones. Wouldn’t you rather be the next game changer in the vein of the Barbara Walters/Deborah Feldman archetype than just another everybody else?

Originally from Hollywood, Not California–a city in South Florida better known as “that town where Anna Nicole Smith died”–Mitchell moved to New York to study writing and gender studies. He has written for Thought Catalog and worked as a writer’s assistant to novelist Cara Hoffman. Next spring he will intern at the publicity department at Simon & Schuster. He blogs at mitchellsunderland.tumblr.com. Be like a stripper in Miami and follow him on Twitter (@mitchsunderland).

7 Comments

  • Reply February 29, 2012

    Mark

  • Reply February 29, 2012

    gedolas

    I wonder how proud Sarah Lawrence is with a student like Ms Feldman who was caught with numerous lies.Very few people if any at all in the Jewish community are out defending her.From Satmar to the modern Orthodox to the folks who left Judaism in general are all saying Deborah Feldman is not telling the truth about the community she was raised in.

  • Reply March 6, 2012

    Anon

    Had Ms Feldman behaved in Beth Jacob of the Lower East Side (a moderate school, absent of Hasidim), and not gotten kicked out for terrorizing the teachers, she could have gone the Beth Jacob route (a way more moderate school than the Hasidic school she ended up in) all the way and gone to college, as more Beth Jacob girls do today, than not!

    Then Satmar (a Hasidic school) takes the reject in, and she mocks them!

    $imon & $chuster did in depth research, obviously, into the info she offered and her omissions (ahem).

    All $imon & $chuster has to say is that the book is a personal memoir. (Doesnt neccessarily have to be an accurate picture obviously. Details and facts can be omitted to increase the salaciousness of the book being marketed).

    Anything for more dough.

    Hey, can I sell $imon & $chuster the Brooklyn Bridge? Perhaps theyd buy it, if they thought they could gain monetarily.

  • Reply March 11, 2012

    Eleanor

    Sheer absolute baloney from Anon. I discovered a link to DF old posts on blogspot before she knew she would be published author. She took the time to answer those who commented on her posts. She said these were her personal feelings and perceptions. She said she was not made for the Satmar life. Most of what she wrote was a prelude to what eventually became her book I am assuming. On top of what i believe are the truths of her experiences and reactions to them, she will no doubt open doors to those who also need to leave but cannot find a way out, and thus despair of hope.

    If one is a totally compliant individual, it is easy to fit into any scenario painted for you by your parents and grandparents. You believe all you are taught, neglect to think for yourselves and just go about your restricted life as has been ordered. Not so the young woman who wants more out of life. We all make different choices in life. Perhaps if I were living in a restrictive community my first inclination would not necessarily be to eat crab cake. There would be more I would wish to see than a plate of shellfish at first.

    I think Deborah is still trying to find herself, to erase what she perceives as horror of life within the Satmar sect. She admits if she had been for eg. modern Orthodox she may never have strayed.

    And somehow, perhaps we will know in the next book, she was able via enrolling in an adult education course at Sarah Lawrence, she obtained the taste for freedom that left her wanting to be in control of herself as a free born American young woman.

    So somehow with half way decent writing which might even improve in future, she was able to find people to find people they knew in the publishing business. For this the girl has been put on the proverbial cross of Hasidic wrath, with web pages devoted to what she failed to include in her book plus a salacious story of murder or suicide which she heard from her husband who heard it from somebody else and she admits it is a story she only heard. However, insular sects do cover up. Witness the Catholic church coverups. Witness the social problems in Amish society. A good reading insular cult like communities will turn up horror that are usually swept under the rug.

    What is there not to be glad of for this Jewish girl needing to support her son, exposing her experiences as she saw them as a member of a strict sect? What is wrong with her obtaining the only college she could get into without transcripts but just plain talent and a love of literature that Sarah Lawrence College should also be defamed due to Deborah being a student there?

    When the Hasidic community so condemns her they do not begin to understand they are feeding fodder for increased interest in her book. Also it is a situation of “thou protests too much, I think” With so much protesting it would appear the Satmar community had much to hide.

    She emerges from a community that thinks she is suddenly clean and available due to mikvah attendance as if cleanlines cannot be achieved in one’s own bathtub in privacy. Plus what is dirty about a woman menstruating? She is sloughing off the uterine preparation for conception when conception did not take place. This is called a very simple few words – something dirty that needs to be cleaned up in time for this niddah thing to be over and inbetween the husband’s chance of bringing home an STD to his wife. And she is being condemned for bringing it out in the open when a bit of praise is in order here.

    I find that nobody begins to understand what sex has done to her. She doesn’t like it. She is scared of it. She stands abnormal by never being taught and marrying a man who knew nothing about the act. Oddly these men who cannot comfort their own wives are frequent visitors to prostitutes and see no sin in that. I find it all appalling. I am glad to see that Deborah also still as of today has book readings signed up for where she will no doubt speak and sell autographed copies of her book.

    Eleanor

  • Reply March 15, 2012

    Emma

    She continues to LIE about being a Sarah Lawrence Student. Author, please write a follow-up article about how Deborah Feldman lied about and continues to portray herself as a Sarah Lawrence Student. She was never accepted to SLC. She attended a weekend writing program.

  • Reply March 15, 2012

    Emma

  • Reply April 3, 2012

    Katharine

    This is a beautifully written and deeply-felt article. Regardless of the controversies surrounding Feldman, I’m so impressed by this piece.

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