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 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).