Friday, August 10, 2012

Book Review: Unorthodox

Deborah Feldman was raised in the Satmar Hasidic sect of Judaism. Her mother left shortly after she was born and since her father had diminished mental capabilities, her grandparents (Bubby and Zeidy) took over her care. She lived in a house where speaking English (instead of Yiddish) and reading books were forbidden. It was unheard of for girls to go to college, so she found herself married off at age 17, to a man she had only spoken to in person for 30 minutes. Finding herself trapped in a physically and emotionally dysfunctional relationship and bringing a child into that family, she soon looks for ways to shed her past and carve a future without restrictions for herself and her son.

Tracey Meyers:
I can't recall ever meeting someone who was Orthodox until I was in my late 20's.  Even when my family lived in a Chicagoland neighborhood where a majority of Orthodox Jews do as well, I still can't say I knew of any difference between "us" and "them."  Growing up, my family attended a Conservative shul despite our Reform practices.  In college, I labeled myself as being a Reform Jew.  Aside from attending High Holiday services and celebrating the well-known Jewish holidays, declaring my religious affiliation as "Jewish" on my application to the private school from which I would eventually graduate and knowing a few key Hebrew words and prayers, there was nothing about the way I lived my life that I would considered Jewish. 

Back in April, I overheard someone talking about a book they had just finished about a woman who had grown-up Hasidic Orthodox Jewish, but left the community with her son at the age of 23. It was called "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots." Needless to say, I was intrigued!  Over the past decade, I have come to know a lot of individuals who went from being Reform or Conservative Jews to becoming Observant Jews (Orthodox); however, I have never heard a story where someone leaves the Orthodox community to become secular.

Overall, I think this book was well-written and gives readers a glimpse into the Satmar Hasid world that Deborah Feldman grew-up in.  It also detailed the challenges she faced personally from an early age, unrelated to her level of religious observance,  that added to her feeling as though she didn't belong.

I like how Deborah explained the rituals and customs of Satmar Hasid community.  Though I am a lot more familiar with what it means to be an Orthodox Jew, and the practices of being observant, than I once was, the particular community covered in this memoir is a lot more restrictive than the one of the Orthodox Jews I know live in, so there were things that definitely came as a surprise to me.  Amongst these things were:
  •  Kids aren't educated about how their bodies will evidently change and develop, and that there is no discussion about sexual relations prior to taking chasan (groom) and kallah (bride) classes. (And even then it seems like "the talk" isn't explicit or helpful).  
  • The Satmar women shave their heads in addition to wearing a shaitel (wig) once they are married.
  • The age at which people get married.  I knew it was young, but I didn't realize how young - around 17-years-old.
There is a lot of detail in this book, but I think that is part of what makes it interesting and makes the reader want to continue on.  With that in mind, consider this a warning that some of what is discussed is not pleasant and might make someone uncomfortable.  Additionally, another thing I found interesting about the detail in this book was what wasn't said, but rather implied, and makes the reader "connect-the-dots" as to what what the root cause of such actions or events might be.  Not only did I find this interesting from the idea that it forced me to think intently about what was being said, but also that the things that weren't explicitly explained were about topics that appear to be taboo within Satmar Hasid community.

Interestingly enough, there were points in the story were I became upset with Deborah Feldman.  This wasn't because she was trying to break away from her community, but more so because of the way she went about it.  Upon further reflection, I let go of these feelings.  Even though I still didn't agree with some of the things she did, I also understand that she is human and handled things in the best way she knew how at the time.  

Going into this book, I knew Deborah Feldman's story would paint a negative picture of the Orthodox community she grew-up in, and that negative view point would be generalized to Orthodoxy overall. This bothered me because, as I mentioned prior, I know a lot of people who are observant and perfectly happy with being Orthodox (whether they chose to be Orthodox or were born Orthodox).

Although I choose not to practice Judaism the same way as my observant friends, I do respect their decision.  And, in recent years, even find myself asking a lot of questions regarding various practices and rituals with the hope that I cannot only have a better understanding of Orthodox Judaism, but also--possibly--help myself gain a better understanding as to why I choose to observe Judaism the way I do and continue to grow spiritually.

Without a doubt, I would recommend people read this book.  It gives a small glimpse into a world that not many know enough about, but maybe should take more time to explore.  It also is an interesting story of the adversity one girl faced on the path to becoming a woman and living the life she always felt she was meant to live.

Melissa Amster:

For those of you who don’t know much about me yet, you may want to read this blog post (be prepared, it’s long) about my transition from a secular lifestyle to one of a Modern Orthodox Jew. I still do a lot of secular things, mind you, but some of the things I don’t do have caused eyes to roll many times. For instance, I don’t use technology (computer, phone, television, etc.) from Friday night to Saturday night, in observance of Shabbat. That’s why I’m never online. I also don’t wear shorts, even in the summer. And for two weeks a month, I do not so much as even hold hands with my husband. Those of you who think my lifestyle is restrictive may not want to read "Unorthodox." The level of restrictions Deborah Feldman describes being raised with would be sure to cause eyes to pop out of their heads. However, if you have an open mind and are interested in reading about one aspect of a widely diverse religion, I highly recommend this book.

Since becoming more observant with Judaism was a choice for me, I find it hard to judge people who are more observant than I am. Parts of my family are frum (highly observant with many rules pertaining to keeping Kosher, observing Shabbat and holidays, modesty, etc.) and I respect their beliefs, even if I could never see myself wearing a shaitel (wig) and long sleeves all year long (especially on 90-100 degree--Fahrenheit--summer days). I respect anyone who has strong faith and does what they feel is important to them to show this faith. As long as they are not using it to hurt or oppress someone else, who am I to judge? Also, coming from a less “restrictive” secular lifestyle during which I watched Saturday morning cartoons and ate cheeseburgers at McDonald's, I am not one to tell a Satmar Hasid how to live their life. I would never fit into their lifestyle and don’t plan to. Especially if it meant I wasn’t allowed to read my books!

Deborah Feldman makes a strong case for herself as to why she decided to reject her roots. She starts off describing her childhood and takes us up to the time she left everyone behind for a secular lifestyle. I don’t think she was ever meant to be Hasidic to begin with. As they say in the song “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast, “It’s a pity and a sin, she doesn’t quite fit in.” Deborah knew she didn’t fit in right away and her aunts, uncles and cousins made this clear to her from the start. They thought something was wrong with her because her mom left to become secular and her dad was basically a child in a grown man’s body. While most girls her age sat quietly in school and did what they were told, Deborah was sent to the principal’s office many times for one rebellious behavior or another. She also snuck secular books into her house and hid them where she thought her Zeidy wouldn’t look during Passover cleaning.

As she grew older, she tried her best to fit into the life she was given. She made friends and participated in all the Sabbath and holiday rituals. She even helped her Bubby cook. Still, she found ways to stand out, which made finding her a proper shidduch (marriage match) that much harder. When she was finally paired off, she eagerly participated in the excitement leading up to her wedding day, which included giving and receiving gifts on the holidays, graciously taking her part in the spotlight during the pre-wedding ceremonies, setting up a home for herself and her soon-to-be chasan (husband) and taking kallah (bride) classes, which culminated in going to the mikvah prior to marriage. However, her wedding night was a different story. Deborah goes into a lot of intimate detail about what happens in her bedroom, which may be comfortable for some and cause others to squirm. Being as sheltered as she was, with a lack of sex education up until her kallah classes, she had no clue on how to consummate her marriage and this cluelessness led to a very difficult first year for her husband and herself. To top it off, her family (including her in-laws) knows what happened (or didn’t happen) in the bedroom and this adds to her shame and embarrassment. If only she had snuck out Judy Blume books instead of “Little Women,” she might have been more prepared for what was to occur on her wedding night and beyond.

I liked all the parts where she describes all the traditions for Shabbat and holidays, as well as wedding rituals. Even though I understood what was going on, I still felt as though I had an outsider's view into another way of life. While most of the events in this memoir took place between the 1990s and 2010, it felt like I was dropped into the time period of Fiddler on the Roof. Although Khaled Hosseini's novels are fictional, while reading "Unorthodox," I got the same feelings of nervous trepidation that I did while reading "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns." I kept thinking the whole time: "Oh, this can't be good." I don't know why I would dread what was waiting around the corner for Deborah, but perhaps the book's synopsis built me up to that level of anxiety.

I know the book cover and summary both imply what happens as Deborah gets older, as it mentions her giving birth to a son and how she eventually leaves her family behind for what she feels is a better life. And honestly, I don’t blame her for doing so! It was clear from the beginning that she was not meant to have this lifestyle, no matter how hard she tried to fit in, as it was her best bet for survival at the time. When she realizes there’s more to life than what she has experienced and tries to fit into the secular world, there’s still a lot in store for her. It’s not easy to transition from a sheltered life to one without rules and customs. I would have liked to know more details about her adjustment into this world and any setbacks she may have had. I also wanted to know if she kept up with any Jewish traditions after she became more secular. She just sums everything up in an epilogue, not really giving the full picture. It makes me wonder if she’ll write another book eventually, as she is an incredibly engaging memoirist.

Aside from some of the “gory” details, I really enjoyed getting to know Deborah and even saw pieces of myself in her. I was glad I had the opportunity to read "Unorthodox" (thanks to receiving it as a birthday gift) and would definitely recommend it to anyone who can handle reading about a lifestyle very much different from their own, without becoming judgmental. Reading this memoir made me realize how important it is to raise my children in a positive and fulfilling way, even while keeping to the rules we have embraced. If religion is crammed down ones' throat in a negative fashion, there could be more individuals who decide to become secular and the traditions and customs could eventually die out. It's important to have certain traditions and customs that will carry on for many more generations, but there's no reason they can't be made enjoyable.

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