Deborah Feldman’s memoir – a triumph of the spirit

Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, by Deborah Feldman. Simon & Schuster. 272 pages. $23.00.

It’s no surprise that Unorthodox has raised a good deal of controversy. There isn’t much middle ground in published reactions. Some find the writing effective and moving, some find it amateurish – barely passable. Are all these people reading the same book? For me, the writing is just fine in doing the job that the author sets out to do: tell her story as she sees it. It’s particularly strong in registering emotional truths and differentiating among the various levels of insight and maturity that the author attains in her journey. Deborah Feldman’s subjectivity is an asset, not a liability. This is a memoir, not a scholarly tome. 

Ms. Feldman’s tale of growing up in Brooklyn’s Satmar community, a particularly repressive and conformist Hasidic group, plausibly expresses the tension between wanting all of the psychic nourishment of belonging and approval – and needing to be true to herself. Her identity has already been threatened by the disgrace of having a mentally disabled father and a mother who abandoned Deborah and the community. Raised by her rapidly aging grandparents, people less equipped to deal with this responsibility as time goes by, Deborah reaches her teen years in crisis.

The author’s portraits of her neighborhood, her grandparents’ home, the array of relatives, the texture of daily life with its strict rules and narrow expectations, her education, and her own identity conflicts are vivid and totally engaging. Unorthodox is a very special kind of coming-of-age story in which the consequences of rebellion of any sort are a lot more severe than in less isolated and less guarded communities. From a very young age, Deborah is a misfit. She knows it, but because she is not equipped to thrive in any other environment, she is powerless to do anything about it.

Hiding classic English language novels like Jane Eyre and Little Women under the mattress, Deborah pursues a lonely journey to find answers to questions she’s not allowed to ask – or even think.

Deborah Feldman

Deborah Feldman develops revealing scenes throughout the book. One of the most memorable is her description of the claustrophobic frenzy at a Simchat Torah celebration in the Satmar synagogue. Ms. Feldman conjures up the enormous crowds, the dangerous pushing and shoving in the overloaded women’s balcony as its denizens search for positions that allow a glimpse of the Satmar Rabbi dancing with the Torah. And then the rush to get out, the collapse into silence after the noisy ecstasy, and the writer’s own sense of separation from all she has tried so hard to enjoy.

Though this young woman received some mentoring with respect to her own biological processes and some guidance in preparing for marriage, these were insufficient to allow for healthy transitions. She lived in a word in which the potential for some kind of shameful exposure was always at hand, where gossip and rumor were rampant, and where privacy was almost non-existent.

At seventeen, just out of the 11th grade, she was married off to a stranger. Attempts at sexual intimacy were a disaster, and it seemed as if everyone knew about their problem and had something to say about it. Such busy-body intrusion did not help matters; however, treatment from a wise and sensitive physician eventually made sexual intercourse possible. This section of the narrative is harrowing.

Soon after that treatment, Deborah Feldman was pregnant.

The marriage was doomed early on. The husband regularly sought his own sexual release, but never had a clue about romancing or pleasuring his wife. Her role, perhaps, was never to be more than a provider for her husband’s pleasure and the vessel for birthing his offspring. It was a subset of her communal role.

Although the couple’s relocation to a suburban community filled with other Orthodox and Hasidic couples gave her some relief from the prying eyes and interference of acquaintances and relatives in Williamsburg, Deborah Feldman already knew she had to find a way out both for herself and her young son.

Exactly how this escape took place I’ll leave for the curious reader’s enlightenment.

Unorthodox is a courageous and valuable piece of story-telling. It conveys both the innocence and wisdom of youth, and it is good medicine for disenfranchised souls.

This review appears in the July-August 2012 Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County) and the July 2012 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and the Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).


Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

2 responses to “Deborah Feldman’s memoir – a triumph of the spirit

  1. By Tracey
    I only read the book, so that I could see for myself, with my own eyes, and not just listen to what everyone was talking about. I was completely shocked at the inconsistencies, that show throughout the entire book. It really was written well, coming from a women who says she only got a very, so she says, miniscule education. She wrote how she didn’t know anything about the ” outside world”, and yet she writes, in a childish manor, how many times she ran to the library, and how she would sneak books under her mattress. Another confusing part, was how she “ran” from Williamsburg, and from Satmar, but when she left she was living in suburbia, in Rockland county, with her husband and son, and even drove a car, which is common up there. I would not suggest this book to anyone, unless of course it was changed to a fiction, and instead of being her experience as a, very young and innocent, woman it would say what she thought about herself. I pity how she grew up, in a way, but, as a published writer myself, I wouldn’t and never have, written a tell all book about how the people in my personal life have hurt me, and then use slander against my religion. It was very confusing, being that I have Chassidik friends of my own, who go out, have normal lives, enjoy their husbands and even drive cars. In every religion there are all types of people, fanatics, liberals, conservatives and your average NORMALS. The Orthodox Jewish Community, including the Chassidik Community, is a very large, and multicultural, type of people, and there are hundreds of thousands of them, all over the world. Can you say, without a doubt, that ALL of them, even a large percent, are as fanatic as she describes? Sure there are plenty of Chassidik, men and woman, who can’t handle the way their lives are and change to a different way of life, that fits them. But most of them, including my friends, don’t go and reject their Jewish Roots by throwing all of the traditions away. Being Ultra Chassidik is a choice and way of life, and is not meant for everyone, that doesn’t mean that everyone who feels cheated should go out and spit on the ones who DO want to be this way. I do believe, correct me if I’m wrong, that we are living in the USA, a land that gives everyone the CHOICE to live the way they want, without being judged, BY ANYONE. The only people, in my opinion, and in many others as well, that hurt Mrs. Feldman, was her own family, basically her mother, for abandoning her, at such a crucial time, and herself, for not being honest about who she really wanted to be. Otherwise the exaggerations in the book, in regard to the “Family Purity Laws” which I know first hand, being Orthodox myself, make no sense. There are so many Modern Orthodox women, who wear jeans, even where I live, and they keep this law, even before keeping, strict, Kosher laws, and after asking some of my friends about the other private issues, they told me, that they were all fine and satisfied, to say the least, and said that ALL newly married couples, Jewish or not, have a lot to learn, when it comes to their “needs”. I hope that her next book, if it comes out soon, has more accurate information. If not, I, or a few of my colleagues, wouldn’t mind coming out with an Adult version of the REAL truth about being orthodox, and giving it to our children upon marriage. For some reason, instead of writing a wake up book, to the fanatics, that they need to calm down with their pressurizing laws, and guide people instead of pushing them, she wrote a negative book, not helping anyone. I am part of a group of wonderful people who are making a film about the beauty of being Frum, and at the same time are making it their business to speak to people who have lived their entire lives in insular communities and now or completely not religious and help them return, on their own terms. Life is never easy, but a woman who is barely 25 years old, has yet to live and understand that not everything is black and white, and needs to learn how to come to terms with who she wants to be and how others want to lead their own, individual, lives. Positive attitudes will get more in this world, and negative will get you no where! Let her try and write something that can help people understand how to show compassion for those who are different, and for those who have been abused, instead of putting down an entire religion. Then call her a great writer.

  2. It’s interesting how readers of this book disagree with positions that aren’t taken by its author. Feldman does not attack Orthodoxy or Judaism. Her experience has to do with one particular Hasidic group. Someone’s experience outside of that group does not give that person even subjective authority to counter her view. Modern Orthodox Jewish women are not likely to be comfortable in the Satmar community. Also, let’s remember what a memoir is and not expect it to be a social science tract.

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