Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots is the memoir of 24-year-old Deborah Feldman, who was raised in the Hasidic community of Satmar in Williamsburg, NYC. A New York Times bestseller, the book is in every way a page-turner. The story moves quickly and effortlessly, starting with Feldman’s earliest childhood memories, then through her formative years, and finally to her marriage (at age 17).
Her story is so fascinating that reading it often verges on a sort of sinister rubbernecking; as the reader, I was alternately intrigued and horrified. Feldman’s descriptions of the mikvah ritual (the monthly cleansing surrounding menstruation) are painful to read, as are her introductions into sexuality (molestation, assault, and finally pathological anxiety). But as the reader, you get the sense that Feldman doesn’t quite mind the rubbernecking. She has given us this analytical glimpse into her experience of Hasidism for a reason. “I consider myself lucky to have the freedom to write this book,” she explains in the acknowledgements, “and I hope it makes a difference in the lives of others” (254). Her work seems directly linked to her personal experience and stems from the desire to give hope to others in similarly repressive environments.
Despite Feldman’s occasional commentary and exploration of such themes as spirituality, sexual repression, and gender difference, much of the book is a straight-forward presentation of facts. It’s almost as though Feldman were saying This is how things really are. What are you going to take away from this? which makes for a very compelling acceptable.
For me, the most interesting aspect of Unorthodox is the explanation of the countless rules, regulations, and rituals required of Hasidic Jews and Hasidic women in particular. Feldman describes these limitations in all their hypocrisy. Any discussion of sexuality is forbidden, yet at age 17 she is expected to be completely prepared for her (arranged) wedding night. Scholarship is highly esteemed, yet girls are forbidden to read books in English. Women’s hair must be hidden at all costs, but styled, shiny wigs are completely fine.
Deborah Feldman’s strength of character and ultimate ability to leave the only life she’s ever known make for a harrowing, inspiring read. Her most impressive feat in this novel, however, is that despite all of the pain and suffering she experienced growing up as a “good Satmar girl,” she still manages to make the characters of her life sympathetic and human. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in stories of self-actualization or life in the Hasidic community. Also, the literary references and photos that introduce each chapter add much to the book as a whole.
Here is a clip of Feldman on The View with Barbara Walters. She is incredibly poised and well-spoken. Unsurprisingly, Feldman’s tell-all exposé upset a lot of people. There is even a blog dedicate solely to attacking her work.