Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman
Published: 2012 by Simon & Schuster
Source: Purchased (e-book)
I’ve always been interested in other cultures, but since I read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl when I was eight or nine, I have been especially interested in Jewish culture. Not that it is connected, but the man I married happens to be Jewish and in some ways I’m more interested in the different holidays and customs than he is (he is not observant, as you may have guessed).
So I was interested in reading this book, Unorthodox, after hearing some buzz about it on Twitter and elsewhere. It piqued my interest to get an insider’s look into an enclosed society, and it sounded like the story of a brave young woman who seeks more for her life than just religion.
Deborah Feldman was raised by her grandparents in the Hasidic enclave of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Her mother left her at an early age, apparently unable to cope with the strict confines of the Satmar sect into which she married. Deborah’s father was present but not present; he seemed to have a mental deficiency and was unable to be a parent to her. Growing up, Deborah knew what was expected of her — to marry and have many children — but she wanted more. Discovering books and the power of reading at an early age, she quickly learned what the world outside of Williamsburg had to offer her. That’s not to say she wanted to abandon her religion; though she took issue with some of the rituals and traditions, I think that being Jewish was still important to her and that she sought wider life experiences.
As expected, she married at age 17 and despite the rigid gender roles it appears that she was given a fair amount of freedom in her marriage; at least more than I expected, given my preconceived notions. After she gives birth to her son, she begins taking some classes at a local college, and there she realizes that if she truly wants to fulfill her ambitions she must escape the only life she has known and start anew.
Based on the buzz I had heard upon the book’s release I was expecting an incendiary story of how Hasidic Judaism is awful and that Ms Feldman had to risk her life to escape it. But I didn’t find it that way at all. She is certainly critical of Hasidic Judaism, especially of its insularity, and it was brave for her to leave her situation, but it wasn’t as dramatic as I expected (yep, the buzz worked). Nonetheless I found it to be a very interesting read.
Note: When the book was published there were claims from members of the Hasidic community that what Feldman wrote about them was not true — for example, how she acted in the community, and, on a larger scale, the mysterious circumstances of a boy’s death . Since I read the book some months after publication and after the furor died down, this didn’t affect how I read the book; in fact, based on the controversy I was expecting much stronger allegations but found none.