Summary: In this arresting memoir about growing up in—and ultimately escaping from—a strict Hasidic community, Deborah Feldman reveals what life is like trapped within a religious sect that values silence and suffering over individual freedoms.
The Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism is as mysterious as it is intriguing to outsiders. Unorthodox sheds new light on this subculture through one woman’s harrowing tale of repression and self-discovery.
Raised in the cloistered world of Brooklyn’s Satmar Hasidim, Deborah Feldman struggled as a naturally curious child to make sense of and obey the rigid strictures that governed her daily life. From what she could read to whom she could speak with, virtually every aspect of her identity was tightly controlled. Married at age seventeen to a man she had only met for thirty minutes, and denied a traditional education—sexual or otherwise—she was unable to consummate the relationship for an entire year. Her resultant debilitating anxiety went undiagnosed and was exacerbated by the public shame of having failed to serve her husband. In exceptional prose, Feldman recalls how stolen moments reading about the empowered literary characters of Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott helped her to see an alternative way of life—one she knew she had to seize when, at the age of nineteen, she gave birth to a son and realized that more than just her own future was at stake.
Unorthodox is a captivating odyssey through adversity and a groundbreaking look into Orthodox Jewish culture.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Having not heard much about Ms Feldman before I heard about this book, the one star, highly critical reviews of this book puzzle me. I found it a beautifully, skillfully written expose on the life of a girl growing up in a Hasidic community, but knowing all along she does not belong there.
A few things really struck a chord with me, like how Bubby and Zeidy sent Deborah to a psychiatrist to deal with her ‘attitude’… like not aligning herself to the Hasidic belief made her crazy. The rules upon rules upon rules… how does anyone remember what to wear and when and what to do and when and what is appropriate when? It would seem as if children are set up up fail upon birth and all one can hope for is forgiveness and mercy. I also made note of the quote, when Deborah asked why they never got treatment for her father:
“Bubby says that a problem child is a punishment; Zeidy says it’s a test from God. To treat a problem is to evade the suffering that God felt you deserved.”
So, Bubby and Zeidy must have felt that they were being punished for something, sentenced to care for their granddaughter, whose mother left the community soon after she was born and whose father roams the streets a drunkard.
I was fascinated by the background of the Satmar Community and Hasidism in general. I’ve always been interested in the Jewish faith and culture and this book really fed a lot of my curiosities, from the idea of Kosher foods to the mikveh that women take part in as part after childbirth or menstruation. Arranged marriages and wigs and long dresses with sleeves and high collars so as not to accidentally show off your collar bones or your knees… and should you do so and a man sins because of that, the punishment falls on YOU.
Having come from a past and a culture in which I was allowed to become whatever I wanted, go to college and get a job and live on my own, the culture shock of immersing myself in a family where the opinions and education of women is not a large concern was like being thrown in a tub of ice. I was chilled to the bone when I read that most girls don’t even graduate high school because it was not worth educating women further than that. It would be a waste of money and besides, they weren’t allowed.
I wish that we could have learned more about Deborah’s decision to leave the community and Hasidism. I felt like she brushed over what must have been an enormous transition in her life. Was there opposition from her aunt, her grandparents? There is another memoir coming out in the spring that I hope covers the actual rejection of her roots and adjusting to a different lifestyle.
I don’t usually have a large interest in nonfiction and memoirs but this book is written so well, I forgot that it was a memoir. Powerful, raw, deeply feeling, real writing. Much enjoyed.