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Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman

picture of book cover

To understand Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots , or to even talk about it, I think it has to be clear what it is, and is not.
It is a fascinating coming-of-age story. It is not reflective of the Orthodox community as a whole. I’m not even sure it’s reflective of much more than one woman’s experience in the Hasidic Satmar sect that lives in Willamsburg, Brooklyn.
There is a tremendous amount of defensiveness coming from Orthodox women about the book, but I do think the tone of the memoir seems to want to be a broader indictment of the lives these women leave. I’m uncomfortable with a 24-year-old of unusual circumstances having the last say on what’s right and what’s repressive when it comes to Orthodox women.  There are a lot of happy, fulfilled women in that community, and to assume that Feldman’s experiences reflect something drastically broader would be to assume that everyone’s experience in a mental asylum is similar to Susanna Kaysen’s, or that Augusten Burroughs’ Dry reflects how all alcoholics recover.  At one point in the book, someone mentions that a relative of theirs is a Lubavitcher, and Feldman says “I’m Satmar. They are completely different, but it would be hard to explain.” But she doesn’t go into much more detail, and one could believe that she assumed the reader would be smart enough to appreciate her story for what it is.
And it is a compelling story, one that will thrill the hearts of women who snuck forbidden books into the house to read and always felt they were meant for more that what had been expected. Feldman is at her best when she draws parallels between her life and that of literature, such as seeing how Jane Austen’s characters, specifically Elizabeth Bennett, are not dissimilar to how the marriage market works in her community.  It’s never really a question, at least to the reader, of how she’ll leave the sect, it’s a question of how. And in many ways, her story is a triumph of how one can break free and become a woman. I’m thrilled that people are reading this book – it came up at the first night Passover sedar I went to, I kid you not.
But there are what I perceive as big gaps in the story. It seems as if, for example, her husband and she simply decided to separate and no one intervened after years of meddling into their lives. There’s also a disquieting sense that she plays up her husband’s worst faults – and there are a lot – to justify taking her child with her when she leaves. There is very little sympathy reserved for a guy who was as much forced into their marriage as she way, may be gay, and tries in his own fumbling way to grow up and be a husband and father. Once Feldman decides to leave,  she doesn’t dwell on the shame she is bringing to her extended family, and that it’s not really just about her. But that reveals a broader problem with the memoir: It’s always about Feldman, and that’s her right as a memoirist. But one would hope that in her second memoir – and I’m sure there will be one – that time and age will give her a broader perspective.