Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman


  Full title “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots”.  This is the memoir on which the much-discussed Netflix series is based.  I haven’t got Netflix, so I haven’t seen it, but the book was available as a 99p Kindle download, so I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about.

I can’t honestly see quite what all the fuss is about – although the TV series may well be much better.  The book’s interesting; but it’s written in rather a rambling way, and there’s way too much detail about things which really aren’t that interesting, like what they had for their tea, and how people were pushing and shoving to get to the front to see people dancing at a religious festival.  Some of the small details really are interesting, though, like just how much the furry hats cost, and how girls are supposed to wear particular types of tights/stockings.  I also liked the fact that the author said she’d been inspired by the fictional heroines of books she’d managed to obtain secretly.  Elizabeth Bennet.  Jo March.  Anne Shirley.  People often talk about how these fictional heroines can form a bond between women, or at least Anglophone women, from completely different backgrounds.  How very true that’s shown to be here.

Having said all that, it does raise some important issues about the lack of choices for people raised in closed religious communities.  It’s not even just closed religious communities: there’s a growing movement, in the US if not so much elsewhere, for religious parents, especially those from evangelical churches, to home school their children, which means that the children only learn what the parents want them to learn, rather than the mainstream curriculum.  The lifestyle of strict religious communities does work for many people, and obviously that’s great for them, but it’s very difficult for those who are brought up in those communities but want something different from life.

What I’d like to have heard more about – in addition than the story of the author’s mother, who was born in Manchester, and left the New York Hasidic community she married into because she was gay – was the history of it all.  I’ve spent quite a while reading up on this, since reading the book.  I – spot the Eastern European history specialist 🙂 – knew the basics, about the Khmelnytsky Massacres, and Sabbatai Zvi, and the Haskalah, and the split between the Hasidim and the “Lithuanians” – but I didn’t really understand that they were so many different groups, and that they all centred on individual dynasties.  It’s more interesting that what people had for their tea. OK, it is to me, anyway!

Honestly, it is fascinating.   Most of the groups originated in South Central/Eastern Europe, where the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire (as it became), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Ottoman Empire and the Danubian Principalities met and collided and took and swapped territory.  The Satmar group, the one which this book is about, originated in Transylvania, in a city called Satmar in Yiddish, Satu Mare in Romania and Szatmarnemeti in Hungarian.  Without going into the rights and wrongs of the Treaty of Trianon, it’s now part of Romania, but was under Hungarian administration during the war.  A lot of Hungarian Jews were deported to a ghetto there, and many of those who survived the Holocaust later moved to Williamsburg, New York, where the leader of the Satmar dynasty had established a new community.  The book doesn’t go into this in much detail.  It’s a shame.  As I’ve said, it’s a lot more interesting that what people had for their tea.

And these communities are closed.   A lot of people in Manchester will be familiar with the name “Chabad-Lubavitch”: that’s the more open Hasidic group, and they do engage with the wider community, with things like putting menorahs up in different parts of town during Chanukah.  They’re mentioned in passing here, as living in the Crown Heights area of New York, and having little to do with the Satmars, who live in the Williamsburg area.  But, until I looked on Google, I didn’t even know that there was a big Satmar synagogue in Salford.  I know the street it’s on, and I know that there’s a big synagogue there, and I see men wearing furry hats when I drive through that area, but I’d never heard the word “Satmar” mentioned in connection with it before.  This is not in New York.  This is a few miles down the road.

And there are loads and loads of other groups, as well as the Satmars and the Chabad-Lubavitch, especially in New York.  There are even splits within the Satmar group: Deborah is shocked when she thinks that her husband-to-be is a member of one faction, when her family are members of another. I honestly didn’t realise it was all such a complex situation.

The book does explain briefly that children are taught that the Holocaust was a punishment for assimilation.  This does partially explain why the community shuts itself off.  I don’t know how much that’s specific to the Satmars, because of the particular history of Hungarian Jews.  There’s not much historical background, though.  To be fair, it’s not intended as a textbook.  It’s the story of one woman’s experiences.

I wasn’t very comfortable with the fact that she included so much personal, very intimate detail about her marriage.  Her ex-husband doesn’t sound like the world’s greatest guy, but he wasn’t personally to blame for the ways of their community, and it must have been very embarrassing for him to have had all this private stuff made so public.  I also wondered what her son, who must now be a teenager, thinks about it.  Having said which, I gather that the ex-husband has now also left the community, and is happily remarried and leading a secular lifestyle which suits him much better, so hopefully things have worked out for him too.

This book is now eight years old and, since it was written, it’s become a little more common for people to move away from closed religious communities.  Obviously, those lifestyles do work for some people, as I’ve said, but it’s clearly extremely hard for those who do want to get away, especially women who are usually married off in their teens, expected to start having children immediately, and are then in a position where it’s even harder to leave.  Having said which, there was a lot of talk in the UK a few years ago about non-registered schools, and several points were made about how difficult it is for boys who’ve attended Hasidic schools, because they’ve been taught little other than religious studies.

The theme of the book is the author’s own struggles with the restrictions of the closed community in which she’s been brought up.  Her own position’s unusual, the child of a mother who left the community and a father who seems to’ve had severe learning disabilities.  She’s brought up by her grandparents. We hear about her school, and all the emphasis that’s put on “modesty” in dress and behaviour, and then about her arranged marriage at the age of 17.

They have a lot of problems in the bedroom, and there’s really way too much detail about that, but they do eventually have a child.  She’s always been a bit of a rebel, but, after her son is born, she rebels much more, enrols on a college course, starts dressing differently, not wearing a wig, eating out at non-kosher restaurants with her new friends … and, eventually, she takes her son and leaves.

Perhaps inevitably, the book is very critical of the community, even of some her own relatives.  It also goes into detail about the customs of this community which keeps itself to itself – it’s as much an expose as a memoir.  Some of that’s fairly uncontroversial, such as how rabbis are seen as celebs to the extent that children have “rabbi cards” in the way that other children have football cards, and details about keeping a kosher kitchen.  A lot of it will be interesting to people who are not familiar with Hasidic Judaism, such as married women not being allowed to show their own hair, and how marriages are arranged.

Some of it is much more controversial.  I think everyone’s aware that cases of child abuse within a lot of religious communities have been covered up, and that’s something that’s mentioned here.  The book also alleges that a father murdered his own child when he caught him masturbating, and that the community covered it up.  The author’s said that she would not have made something like that up.

It ends with her leaving the community, and we get the impression, although it’s not made clear, that she’s now cut off from it completely.  It’s all shown very positively.  If she feels any regrets about being cut off from her grandparents, her father, her aunts, uncles, cousins and old friends, and about cutting her son off from them too, she doesn’t express them.  Having said which, she had nothing positive to say about any of them, other than her grandparents.  If she’s got no regrets, that’s great for her.  It’s probably a lot more difficult for most people to make that break.

She also had friends from college who were able to help her, notably by introducing her to publishing contacts so that she was able to get a contract to publish her book and make some money.  A lot of people, especially women, in her position, wouldn’t have had that help.  It is very, very difficult for people to escape that lifestyle, if they want to.  And I suppose the reason for the popularity of the book is that people admire someone who was able to do that.

This isn’t a literary masterpiece.  It rambles.  People who are unfamiliar with Judaism and with Yiddish words will probably find some of it hard to follow.  Two different forms of transliteration from Hebrew are used, rather randomly.  It’s also all me-me-me -OK, it’s the author’s memoir, but she never seems to stop to consider how her husband might feel about things, or how her grandparents might feel about things, or how anyone else at all might feel about things.  But there’s clearly something about it, because the book was a best seller, and the TV series was a big ratings winner.  I think the 99p Kindle offer’s finished now, but, if it comes up again, this is worth a go.

8 thoughts on “Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman

  1. mrsredboots

    Just walk along the River Lea on a Saturday afternoon….. I’m cross because it’s no longer 99p on Kindle! I am not paying £7.99 for it when there are so many other things to read.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m Jewish, I live in Israel, and I’ve been exposed to many of these faction, and believe me, I still don’t understand all of them. The Satmars, however, I know quite a bit about – too much, I think. I don’t think I could read this, but if I did, I’m sure I’d understand more than you did because I know some of the background (not all, obviously).

    Liked by 2 people

    • I understood the book, which was mainly about what sort of hats people wore and what they had for their tea, but I hadn’t realised that there were quite so many different groups. There are probably far more in New York than there are here, but, from what Google says, there are more groups even here -and I only live 2 or 3 miles from the Hasidic area of Manchester/Salford – than I’d realised. Very interesting!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Here in Israel we’ve got them all, and believe me, they can sometimes be like the Hatfields and the MacCoys the way they feud between them. The only thing they agree on is that they want government funding for their private education schools, which refuse to teach things like English, science, math, and civics. They want government money to make sure that their children grow up to be just like their parents – welfare recipients, with essentially no means of supporting themselves (well, the women teach in their schools, but that’s about it), and only studying religion their whole lives, and having TONS of babies. Disgusting.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. It sounds like a fascinating book. I am from Eastern Europe and I would like to know more about this topic. Your comment on how she is portraying her husband, especially as they have a son, is very telling too, as this kind of things would have annoyed me as well.
    I will have a look at the Netflix series too.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, it’s quite an interesting book. I’m surprised that she said so much about her husband – if you split up from your partner but you’ve got children together, it’s usually best to try to stay on good terms unless the other person’s done something very bad.

      Liked by 1 person

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