Now a Netflix original series!
Unorthodox is the bestselling memoir of a young Jewish woman’s escape from a religious sect, in the tradition of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel and Carolyn Jessop’s Escape, featuring a new epilogue by the author.
As a member of the strictly religious Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism, Deborah Feldman grew up under a code of relentlessly enforced customs governing everything from what she could wear and to whom she could speak to what she was allowed to read. Yet in spite of her repressive upbringing, Deborah grew into an independent-minded young woman whose stolen moments reading about the empowered literary characters of Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott helped her to imagine an alternative way of life among the skyscrapers of Manhattan. Trapped as a teenager in a sexually and emotionally dysfunctional marriage to a man she barely knew, the tension between Deborah’s desires and her responsibilities as a good Satmar girl grew more explosive until she gave birth at nineteen and realized that, regardless of the obstacles, she would have to forge a path—for herself and her son—to happiness and freedom.
Remarkable and fascinating, this “sensitive and memorable coming-of-age story” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) is one you won’t be able to put down.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Were you desperate to break free from your bossy family as a teenager? You should walk a mile in Deborah Feldman’s shoes. Her memoir—the inspiration for the popular streaming series of the same name—offers an intense and detailed account of her secretly rebellious, misfit life inside an extremely restrictive Hasidic Jewish home in Brooklyn. Feldman’s vivid and engrossing examination of ultra-Orthodox culture, beliefs, and customs shows off an anthropologist’s attention to detail and a poet’s compassion. Despite her struggles, she manages to be both loving and scathing, to explore a range of emotions from anger to joy. One of the things that stuck with us was Feldman’s depiction of her arranged marriage at 17. She describes those years with such beautiful honesty and innocent bewilderment that we cheered when she musters the incredible courage to break free.
Born into the insular and exclusionary Hasidic community of Satmar in Brooklyn to a mentally disabled father and a mother who fled the sect, Feldman, as she recounts in this nicely written memoir, seemed doomed to be an outsider from the start. Raised by devout grandparents who forbade her to read in English, the ever-curious child craved books outside the synagogue teaching. Feldman's spark of rebellion started with sneaking off to the library and hiding paperback novels under her bed. Her boldest childhood revolution: she buys an English translation of the Talmud, which would otherwise be kept from her, so that she might understand the prayers and stories that are the fabric of her existence. At 17, hoping to be free of the scrutiny and gossip of her circle, she enters into an arranged marriage with a man she meets once before the wedding. Instead, having received no sex education from a culture that promotes procreation and repression simultaneously, she and her husband are unable to consummate the relationship for a year. The absence of a sex life and failure to produce a child dominate her life, with her family and in-laws supplying constant pressure. She starts to experience panic attacks and the stirrings of her final break with being Hasidic. It's when she finally does get pregnant and wants something more for her child that the full force of her uprising takes hold and she plots her escape. Feldman, who now attends Sarah Lawrence College, offers this engaging and at times gripping insight into Brooklyn's Hasidic community.
I found this book very interesting. Both my parents were brought up in orthodox Jewish homes but they never talked much about it. It helped me understand some of their behaviors that seemed rather at odds to our daily lives. They had given up institutionalized
Judaism by the time I was five. This book clarified a lot of things for me. I also enjoyed reading about how a woman found her strength and identity. This is a book worth reading from a historical prospective and is entertaining.
A first hand witness.
I grew up just like the author in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and I took a similar path through the traditional orthodox school system, and similarly I left it for good. I read her book, and at first I was fascinated by the material that touched on the delicate issues which once upon affected my life.
Now, I'm not overly high on some costumes this community lives by, Yet as I kept on reading, I didn't feel she gave a true account of life in the Hasidic community. She sounds like an intelligent girl. The more I thought her point of view is twisted, all the more I admire her skill, being able to produce a reasonable tale out of thin air.
As a first hand witness, I didn't feel comfortable with her story, instead I constantly felt uneasy. I felt this story is the result of a personal experience she lived through, and a bad one at that, but as far as being a live portrait of life in the Hasidic community, her scope is really little, if not twisted altogether.
For instance, my parents did things I now disapprove of, yet I know most of those mistakes have nothing to do with their membership to the broader hasidic community. They stem from their personal flaws, as most human beings are prone to have.
Since this is a community that lives on the edge of the modern world, there is a bias tendency of outsider writers to erase the individual human beings involved, and try and make them all into one codified people. Falling into that same trap, she sounds to an insider of the community like a total outsider. She talks only about odd occurrences, and not of real life every-day occurrences, as if it's possible to put entire lives of so much peoples in one word punch-lines.
She fails to give those people a life of their own. She doesn't consider those people as private people outside of their religious lives, and in the process she converts them into one sticky bunch, one which only ancient laws present their lives in the dimmest of light.
One thing I will always cherish of my youth in this community is the high education they gave me. Kids over-there start to read books at the age of three, and are constantly encouraged to learn and gain knowledge. At the age of 7 you'll scarcely find a kid who can not write on his own. In short, Deborah Feldman was hardly the first Hasid to discover the value of books, something she tries to hint in the book.
She doesn't give a chance for the thought, that maybe those who didn't leave, just maybe, don't share her polarized view of their own life.
There are more than a few things I never liked in the hasidic community when I was there, I'll admit that, and eventually I felt my place wasn't there anymore, but now I already know that every community in the world has things to dislike. Although she talks at length about the flaws and problems of this community, it's safe to assume that not the problems bother her; it's the way of life she doesn't like, long before she even recognized those problems exist.
In the community she so despises, there was never a case of a community member robbing another person. There was never even any mention of murder or other serious crimes. This is a community which admires people for their scholarly work and charity. If this doesn't speak volume of the quality of education this community grants her youth, I don't know what does.
Those are all things she holds back while discussing a society that's different from everyone around them, while she was more than willing to elaborate about all the polarizing stuff that make them different from everyone else.
Thus, she ought to know that her real problem is with this way of life, not with the flaws and problems which every community suffers in one way or another. It's not cut out for everyone to live this life, and it definitely wasn't made for me. Yet, she shouldn't let a personal bad experience keep her from understanding that the truth is more complex than one black and white picture an artist was willing to draw of it.
Interesting account of life inside the insular, religious Satmar community. The journey of growing up feeling "different" to finding her authentic self is fascinating. I look forward to Ms. Feldman's follow up book, Exodus.