Sunday, March 11, 2012

Book Review: Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots

Deborah Feldman was born into the Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism. Her mother left the community when Deborah was a baby and because her mentally challenged father was in no position to care for her, Deborah was raised by her extremely strict and religious grandparents in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY.

The list of things that Deborah couldn't do was long and encompassing all areas of her life. She had to dress a certain way and went to a special Hasidic school. There was no television, radio, or singing permitted. She wasn't allowed to read secular books and even books written by certain Jews were considered off limits if the authors weren't seen as pious enough. Deborah would rebel against these rules by sneaking in cheap paperback copies of such classics as Pride and Prejudice or Little Women.

When Deborah was 17, it was time to get married. A matchmaker was hired, arrangements were made, and within a year she's married to Eli, who she hopes will be her ticket out of her repressive situation. But she soon finds herself in an unhappy and extremely sexually dysfunctional marriage. Deborah, having spent her whole life being taught to be ashamed of her body, is finding it difficult to suddenly be sexual. As for Eli, his problems run just as deep:

"In yeshiva [an all male Jewish university], Eli says, the boys would jerk each other off. Because there were only men around and no girls, the sight of a boy could get him aroused. After many years, he explains with a sigh, to switch suddenly is weird."

Despite their problems, Deborah soon becomes pregnant. It's after she has her son that Deborah finally gets the courage to make some changes. She secretly enrolls at Sarah Lawrence College and takes the steps that are necessary to build a better life for her son and herself.

This books was chosen by another gal in my book club but it should come as no surprise that of course I loved it. It slips easily into the small (yet ever growing!) genre of books that I love, memoirs about strong minded individuals trying to escape quirky and controlling religions.

Even though Deborah's religion was very different from the religion that I grew up in, there was so much I found I could relate to while reading this. For instance, when a member of their community murders his son because he caught him masturbating, Deborah's infuriated that the incident isn't going to be reported to the police and that nothing will be done to punish the murderer because, as Eli says, "There has to be two witnesses for a man to be tried for murder. What are you gonna do? You can't bring this dead boy back anyhow."

That "two witnesses" thing jumped out at me immediately because that was the rule with the Jehovah's Witnesses as well. Anytime there was an incident where it was one person's word against anothers, if there weren't two witnesses, nothing could be done. I remember hearing rumors of spousal abuse and child molestation but because there weren't witnesses to the events, the case was dropped. (And of course there were never two witnesses because who's going to call in an audience of two to watch them beat their wife or molest a child?) Of course now, as I look back on these situations with the mind of an adult far removed from the organization, I'm appalled that no one thought to go to the police with these accusations. But I also know that going to outside authorities would have been seriously frowned upon. It was simply unheard of to involve "the world" in congregational matters.

So yes, I loved this book and could totally relate but I think that just about anyone would find this book eye-opening and a little bit juicy. My one complaint would be that because the book was written right after Deborah rejected her community, there isn't much space given to telling how she adapted to life on her own afterwards. Hopefully, she's just saving all of that for her second book.


Margaret (Peggy or Peg too) said...

Oh Tammie I think I would love this. Did you by chance see Oprah's 2 parter on this community?
I found it fascinating as hell. But I just found it difficult to believe that these women were happy with their lot in life. I realize I am putting my thoughts of religion and my strong personality into it but there were cracks to me when certain questions were brought up. I can't wait to get this book.

Btw...had Jehovah Witness's come by last Saturday. They wanted to discuss armagedon with me. It was an interesting conversation :-)

Tammie said...

peggy: if you get a chance to read it, please tell me what you think.

i didnt see the oprah episode but from what i understand this community is in the news a lot lately probably at least in part, due to this book.

oooh, im intrigued to hear more about your Jehovahs witness visit.

Belgie said...

I just finished reading this book and thought it was very interesting and informative. It was very fascinating to step inside this Hasidic neighborhood and read about the different traditions and customs of this culture. I know the author has taken some flack for writing this but I honestly didn't come away from it with anything more than it being her experiences and her own thoughts and feelings. She articulates her view very well.

Tammie said...

belgie: i feel the same way. and i didn't feel as if she was speaking negatively about all hasidic jews. this was just simply her experience.

have you read the reviews of her book on goodreads? it seems as if everyone from her past is taking a few moments to slam her.

Carol said...

I haven't had time for much of anything for fun lately, but I always try to take a minute to check in with your blog. My poor blog has fallen to shambles. Too little time and too many children! ha! I will definitely be checking out this book though, your reviews are always so honest! Love it!