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Book Review – Unorthodox

Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, by Deborah Feldman, is an interesting study on the Satmar Hasidic community, and its all-encompassing grasp on those within its foundation.

Feldman writes from her heart, that is clear, but also writes from a childhood perspective, in my opinion. Much of the book is written about her childhood, and the reader doesn’t really see much insight from that point of view. What we do see is a child who rebels against her religion and its standards and adherences.

She constantly equates varied commands and foundations with religious hypocrisy, and is constantly questioning the edicts forced on the followers within the Satmar world. What we see is a restrictive environment, one filled with darkness, whereas other Hasidic sects are more apt to be filled with a richer and more happy foundation.

The reader also sees a child who disagrees with much of the repressive demands of the Satmar community. When she marries at the age of 17, she brings much of her innocence and childhood thoughts and feelings with her, which encompass the pages. We read of her disillusionment and her unsatisfying life with the Satmar environment. We are told of her feelings of repression and dissatisfaction. Marriage was an end result for the women, and a means to an end, so to speak.

Marriage did not offer her any freedom, according to her, and it only fostered her feelings of forced subjection. She felt confined, unable to make her own choices and decisions. The males of her world were the ones in control, the ones who were the dominant force. The ultra strict laws and restrictions were enforced by them.

There are some disturbing aspects within the pages, including the murder of a son by his father. Accordingly, it appears from Feldman’s writing, that it was kept secret and the father did not get arrested for his actions. Whether this is true, or an exaggerated incident, or whether it is not entirely clear from the eyes of a child, the reader is not sure.

There is little content written from a mature perspective. How could there be, as Feldman was a child trapped in a woman’s body as she went through her teenage years. She had no knowledge of what expected of her, or what was outside her confined and restrained world until she gained employment teaching. This is what caused her to see outside the boundaries of her Satmar life.

There is little written which describes how Feldman actually left her husband, and how she seemingly gained custody of her young son (the reader doesn’t know for sure that she has legal custody). The “scandalous” factor, in the title, leaves me unfulfilled. The reader, in my opinion, does not read of scandal, of how her actions affected those around her, or of how the Satmar community reacted to her leaving. We are more or less told it was scandalous, but there are no details to support that in the memoir. There is nothing written in depth about her moving away, nothing supportive with concrete facts. We are given a brief glimpse of her leaving, a few pages detailing her move from the communal hold. It is almost as if Feldman was coming to the end of her story, and didn’t know how to finish it, so she filled in a few pages to complete the memoir.

Feldman depicts a world of repressed women, a world where the outside society clashes with the Satmar community in every aspect. She demonstrates, from her young perspective, the harshness and strictness of daily life. It is an eye-opener in that respect. The cultural implications are strong. Readers of every religion can gain some insight into the cultural dimensions of the Satmar community. In fact, readers of any religion, or nonreligious individuals will learn of the practices and ideals of the Satmar world. And, they might even compare it to their own world, and not only see the differences, but also a similarity or two.

Overall, I think Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, by Deborah Feldman will appeal to young Hasidic women, and feel that they might be able to relate to, and identify with, some of Deborah Feldman’s issues and life experiences in today’s modern world.

November 23, 2012 – 9 Kislev, 5773

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Filed under Book Reviews, Judaism, Memoirs, Non-Fiction