Deborah Feldman's Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.
When I first saw this book at the library, I was really put off by the provocative title. But my coworker Mary asked me to read it because she wanted to know what I thought. (I am Jewish; Mary is a Catholic.)
Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots
Feldman’s story is fascinating and hard to bear. Born and raised in the strict Satmar Hasidic community in Brooklyn, Feldman was brought up partly by her grandparents, because at some point her mother left the community and left her behind. Her father, who was mentally and perhaps developmentally disabled, was unable to care for her. Feldman grew up with the taint of divorce, and other adults who knew her father thought she was “not all there.”
As a girl, Feldman used to go to another part of Brooklyn and sneak into the public library, where she would read forbidden secular books like James and the Giant Peach and Matilda, Alice in Wonderland, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. She even secretly bought a volume of the Talmud, which boys studied but girls did not, and hid it under her mattress.
She chafed against all the restrictions, against the necessity to appear modest, to keep her eyes cast down and to be quiet. “An empty vessel clangs the loudest,” she was told. But she couldn’t help being curious, and talking back. As a teenager, Feldman was molested by a cousin. To his credit, her grandfather sent the cousin away to get married in Israel.
At seventeen, she was engaged to a boy she had had the chance to meet just once, for half an hour, after the match was already made. This is the custom. “I’m not a regular girl,” she warned him then. “I’m hard to handle.” “That’s what I’m good at, you know,” he told her. “I’m the kind of person that can handle anyone…. I’m friends with some difficult people. I find them interesting…. They spice things up.”
But the marriage didn’t work out. There were problems consummating it: ignorance was not bliss. There was sexual dysfunction. (Feldman gives too much information on this as far as I’m concerned, even though my grandfather, who had a furniture store, supposedly had a sign that said “We stand behind every bed we sell.”) Both families got involved – there’s not much privacy for Satmarers.
Eventually, Feldman and her husband, who is thinly disguised by a pseudonym, moved away to another Satmar community where they would have a bit more freedom. Feldman got pregnant and had a baby boy, but she had trouble feeling attached to him. Later in the book, she figures out that she had feared she would lose her son.
Some of the stories Feldman tells are really horrible. A rabbi’s wife is pushed downstairs and dies. Children are punished for being molested, while their molesters are shielded. A boy is killed by his own father, for breaking Jewish law.
Feldman herself finally managed to learn to drive, enrolled in college at Sarah Lawrence, and secretly bought a pair of jeans. In turmoil, she wanted to write, and started an anonymous blog, on which she found out there were other Hasidic rebels like her. In the end, she and her husband agreed to divorce, and she left him, her community, her past, and all her family, taking her son with her. (She does not explain how she got to keep her son.) This book tells her story.
My reaction after finishing Unorthodox was that her story must be unique, her unhappy family unhappy in its own way. Surely the joy, warmth and devotion I associated with Hasidism, itself a soulful rebellion against the Orthodox Judaism of 17th-century Europe, must be the norm. But the more I read about the controversy surrounding the book, the more I realized that this rosy view was not completely accurate.
For sure, it’s important to distinguish between the various kinds of Hasidim. Lubavitchers are not Satmarers. Chaya, who wrote a response arguing against Feldman’s portrayal, is a Lubavitcher by choice. Lubavitchers are welcoming to unobservant Jews who want to become Orthodox: in fact, they proselytize among them, as Chabad. Satmar Hasidim are apparently regarded by other Hasidim as especially pietistic and violent. It seems that their Rebbe reacted to the Holocaust as a punishment from God because Jews had assimilated too much and had not been keeping all the commandments as we had in former days. This reaction is not typical of all Hasidim or of all Jews.
The Satmarers have criticized the book and some of the details in it. Feldman stands by her version of events, although she may have believed some things to be true as she was growing up that were not literally true. And it’s important also to note that not all Orthodox Jews are Hasidim. Modern Orthodoxy, for instance, is a kind of Orthodox Judaism that engages with modernity, science and secular society.
For more about Hasidism and the lives of Jews who choose to become Hasidim, read Holy Days: The World of a Hasidic Family, by Lis Harris.
For more about (usually young) Hasidim like Feldman who kick against the traces, read Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels, by Hella Winston.
For a mystery about the disappearance of a beautiful young Hasidic girl in L.A., read The Big Nap, by Ayelet Waldman.
Vaughn Harrison works at the Half Moon Bay Library and on the Bookmobile.