Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots
By Deborah Feldman
Simon & Schuster, 272 pages
In her bestselling memoir, Unorthodox, Deborah Feldman recounts the story of her apostasy from the Satmar community of Hasidic Jews in which she was raised. The daughter of a mentally disabled father and a mother who fled the scene, she grew up with her grandparents in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, among a large extended family who, she says, looked down on her and waited for her to follow in the shameful ways of either parent. Feldman describes the role she assigned herself as a child: “I am most certainly a good girl, and I will make everyone proud of me. If I can make this work, all my shame can be erased.”
She always hungered to know more than she was “allowed,” she writes, and her book movingly captures the feeling of living with a secret self, of trying to make herself believe even when it was difficult to do so. “The first and greatest Satmar Rebbe said that if we became model Jews, just like in the olden days, then something like the Holocaust wouldn’t happen again, because God would be pleased with us,” she recalls. “But how are we pleasing him with our little efforts, the thicker stocking, the longer skirt? Is that really all it takes to make God happy?”
In high school, she is punished for a dress-code infraction—the refusal to wear a shirt under a sweater. “Your teacher says you’re having trouble following the rules,” the school’s principal tells her. “I don’t understand why you can’t be like everyone else.” That she broke the code over clothing is no small matter. In Orthodoxy, clothing is always a prime area for rebellion because it is a world where what one wears is a public declaration of who one is.
What one reads is equally crucial. As often happens for those who eventually leave the ultra-Orthodox fold, secular books become the portal through which one comes to see a larger world. The teenage Feldman revels in the freedom of the public library: “It is so quiet and still that I feel my thoughts expand in the space that the tall ceiling provides….Secretly, I too am waiting to fall down a hole into Wonderland, or pass through the back of a wardrobe into Narnia. What other possibilities could I consider? Surely I will never be at home in this world.”
Marriage looms throughout her teen years, though Feldman’s ventures into literature give her a perspective unknown to most Satmar girls: “Really I am not far off from a character in Pride and Prejudice. My entire future will also depend on the advantageousness of my marriage.” She believes that in getting married, she is “about to receive the key to freedom and independence.”
But when it is at last upon her, her impending marriage turns out to be less about freedom and more about shopping. She receives the implicit message that the accumulation of beautiful items for her new home will have the power to soothe all problems to come.
In addition to retail therapy, Feldman takes classes in which she learns the complicated rules of “family purity” and thereby discovers “the pulse that really beats through this world I live in.” Her sexual naiveté is so complete that she has no familiarity with her own body, let alone a man’s body. Sex is entirely cloaked in privacy. And yet when she and her husband are unable to consummate the marriage for more than a year, sex turns oddly public, even communal, as their struggle becomes the subject of open family discussion.
It is at this point that Feldman’s wide-eyed tone begins to pall, and the book’s already evident lack of subtlety and depth grows wearisome. “I’m beginning to wonder if I’m becoming an atheist,” she writes in the voice of her 18-year-old self, who doesn’t sound like a particularly impressive or interesting girl. “I used to believe in God, then I believed in him but hated him, and now I wonder if it’s all just random and doesn’t matter. The fact is, there are all these people out there who aren’t Hasidic going about their lives, and no one is punishing them.” In its clichéd rendering of such doubts, Unorthodox proves itself a weak sister to the new novel I Am Forbidden (Hogarth, 302 pages) by the French writer Anouk Markovits—who also grew up Satmar but, unlike Feldman, offers a dazzling portrait of the complexity of belief and doubt and the terrain that lies between them.
Feldman depicts her escape from the Satmar as a “fairytale ending,” though that ending is barely detailed. And the very notion of a fairytale ending seems at odds with a harder-won understanding of the complexities of leaving a community and starting life anew.
Feldman may have fled her constricted Williamsburg existence, but there are no easy answers awaiting her in the wider world outside the Satmar community.
She provides a litany of abuse stories to explain her growing disillusionment with the Satmar. Her description of her first visit to the ritual bath features a Mrs. Mendelson, a mikvah attendant who requires that Feldman be inspected in the bathtub rather than while standing and wearing a robe:
She was being cruel, I thought later, trying to toughen me up, perhaps, or doing what she thought was more religious, more extreme. It never occurred to me that Mrs. Mendelson might have had darker, more personal reasons for doing what she did that night. Years later the police would arrest a mikvah attendant who molested all the brides that were brought to her, but the story would be so shocking, no one would really believe it. After all, when a woman is telling you that you need to submit because that’s how God commanded it, would you question her? It would be like questioning God.
Feldman is accusing someone of criminal molestation here, in a disturbingly coy fashion. More sensationally, she recounts a story, told to her thirdhand, of a father’s murder of his son for the sin of masturbation. Jewish blogs and newspapers have vehemently challenged the veracity of that anecdote—and overall, Unorthodox has provoked accusations that Feldman has deliberately lied in pursuit of her own fame and glory and that she is stoking anti-Semitism.
The invocations of abuse are among the weakest aspects of a touching but unsatisfying book—not because these particular accusations are in all likelihood untrue, as we know there are many that are all too true. The problem is that they seem to have been used so that Feldman can make a plea: “Look at the horror show. This is why I have left.” As if one needs stories of abuse, as if one needs even run-of-the-mill dysfunction, to explain the deep human desire to choose one’s life path for oneself.