Sunday, September 30, 2012 – 9:30 am
“Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots” by Deborah Feldman.
Temple member Steve Wildstein will lead the discussion.
Book Review from – Unpious – http://www.unpious.com
This is a review of Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman. There are many reviews of the book that are thinly disguised reviews of Ms. Feldman. This is not one of those reviews. There are many reviews that are little more than defenses of Orthodox Judaism, or of Satmar. This is not one of those reviews. Where Ms. Feldman herself is relevant, I’ll invoke her, but it’s the book I’m reviewing, not her decision to leave or to write it.
Regarding the accuracy of claims made in the book, I’m not qualified to comment. However, I do find it troubling, and will follow the situation as it develops. As Ms. Feldman writes in the prologue: “[…] publishing my life story calls for scrupulous honesty, and not just my own.” Hella Winston is a fine reporter, but I doubt it taxed her excessively to find out the truth behind the story of the alleged murder. Why couldn’t Simon & Schuster have done the same? The most valuable aspect of the story—that people within the community find a covered-up child murder somewhat plausible—is a much sharper point than a factually incorrect claim of a killing, and the distraction saps the point’s punch.
Unorthodox is not a terrible book, but it is a deeply flawed book. It sorely lacks the maturity of years and is often transparently poor in insight. The book would have been far more valuable with a few more years distance from her break with the community, giving more time for reflection on the past and more content of her life post-break.
The lack of maturity manifests in many ways. Williamsburg is invariably described as dirty, smelly, filthy, etc. That may be how it’s colored in her memory, but a more mature and nuanced view of the Brooklyn neighborhood would surely be more insightful. The book is also tainted with myths, mistakes, and poor editing. The very first sentence contains a myth about Satmar (that it’s named after Saint Mary; it isn’t). The timing of events don’t fit with external evidence. Many of these are excusable as things that she believed; it is a memoir after all. But clarifying such things and identifying what was (understandable) incorrect belief is what separates a good book from a poor one.
Critically, the author makes no distinction between the things that were peculiar to her circumstances and what is common in Satmar in general. Many things she describes (maybe even accurately) as her experience in her family are definitely not typical of Satmar life. Her indiscriminate mixing of aberrations with things that are common in Satmar damages the book’s flow and accuracy, even as a memoir. The book is riddled with it: that a Satmar woman would expect to never fly on a plane (pg. 9), that compliments and physical affection to kids is frowned upon (pg. 18), and on throughout the book. This flaw is particularly tragic for the book since it’s so unnecessary. The parts of her story that are common within Satmar are often moving and interesting, as they should be. The conflation leaves the reader with a mistaken impression about Satmar, surely not something a book with this one’s subtitle should aspire to.
More time and distance would have also benefited the characterization of some of her family members. Her Aunt Chaya in particular bears the brunt of this heavy-handed, thick-lined drawing. Surely she deserves a more shaded portrayal than the Disney villain she’s made out to be. Chaya’s story is not one that is undeserving of sympathy. She was given the thankless task of finding a place and future for a girl with awful prospects in a community where reputation is second to Godliness. Many will find fault with her actions, but the book’s moral authority was weakened by a lack of any sympathy for a woman in a tough position through no fault of her own and trying to make the best of it. The only allowance Ms. Feldman grants Chaya is a single sentence at the end of the prologue, one that is immediately repudiated by the rest of the book.
Her husband, Eli, also falls victim to this lack of sympathy. Ms. Feldman never credits his feelings as a young man stymied by vaginismus and, later, a wife who is uninterested in sex or even foreplay. Ms. Feldman writes that they fight, but not about what. He was thrown into a loveless arranged marriage as much as she was, but only she is portrayed as victimized by it. I did find curious how quickly she glossed over the implication that he gave her an STD, but the brevity was too cryptic to read into.
More distance would have also improved her insight into what she left behind. The end of the book makes pretty clear that she claims no loss, and definitely no regret, from what she left behind. But life is rarely that neat, and the Satmar community for all its flaws is more than a conglomeration of horrors. Most telling in this regard is her comment quoted in The Forward’s Sisterhood blog : “‘Everything I miss I can have,’ she said. ‘If I want cholent, I make cholent. I have it all now.’” Religion didn’t become a near-universal aspect of human culture due to its connection to ethnic food. If she she thinks cholent is what she left behind then she needs to ruminate a bit longer.
The book succeeds best when it connects emotionally with the reader, as it did many times with me. I twisted with pained horror at her having to sneak out to the library, and I had to put the book down for a breather when she’s forced to gather her beloved books to be sent to the dumpster. Libraries have been a big and happy part of my life for decades; my library card is rubbed smooth from active use. The thought of hiding library visits and then losing one’s books is particularly painful for me. Her pain is shared by other members of Unpious. I had the same moving experience reading Shulem Deen’s post Raising Rebels: Pt II , wherein he describes having to bring his children into the conspiracy of their library attendance. My kids each got a library card not long after receiving their birth certificate, and almost never miss the Friday pre-Shabbos library trip to restock for the week. Ms. Feldman’s experience was affecting and deeply troubling.
Her experience of leaving Chasidism so as to gain access to wished-for things is not unique. At several points in the book I was struck by the similarity of her feelings to the feeling expressed in the video, made by members of the Unpious.com community, titled It Gets Besser . A play on the gay It Gets Better campaign, it shows before and after pictures of people who left Chasidism. The after pictures show them swimming with dolphins, boating, biking, camping, etc. When I first saw that video, what came to mind is that I, as a member (in good standing!) of a Modern Orthodox community, do all those things—and with my shul friends, definitely not in secret. Lest you think I mean that as a judgment against them for leaving Orthodoxy to get access to those things, allow me to disabuse you of that notion: I mean the opposite. That video and Ms. Feldman’s book are a more damning indictment of the Chasidic world than any gleefuly prurient exposé of hilchot niddah could ever be. When the book is at its most effective is when it is expressing how ill-suited the lifestyle is for people who will not be happy within its narrow confines. The Satmar lifestyle documented in the book can and does make some people joyously happy—but woe is to you if you’re not one of those people. You needn’t be far from the prescribed and proscribed norm to suffer; there’s precious little allowance for personal quirks. The only Chasidim I see at triathlons are Lubavitch, and thus books like Ms. Feldman’s ring more forcefully.
Inevitably when this point about her book is raised, some jump in to denounce her for not remaining observant in a Modern Orthodox environment. But her book contains the answer to that: why should she? The community spent decades drilling into her the illegitimacy of any other stream of Judaism; it’s hypocritical of them to then turn and demand she disregard it. You can’t fully legitimate a Modern Orthodox lifestyle as an acceptable alternative and still manage to keep people as Satmar. A sense of being the One and Only Right Way to God is a necessary ingredient, and she imbibed it.
Furthermore, what good would it have done her? Would she have maintained a healthy, meaningful relationship with her family? Of course not. As per above, that option would scarcely have left her better off. She’d still be alienated, divorced, and tossed into a different culture. Two years ago I spent some time with a young man who was a Modern Orthodox ex-Chasid. The guy was 100% frum. He had done exactly what those people suggest when he found the Chasidic lifestyle too stifling: became MO. I spent a whole 24 hours in a car with him, so I got to know him: great guy, amazingly upbeat. But his family virtually disowned him and are ashamed of him. When he got married, his father refused to attend unless he wore a shtreimel to his own wedding. You understand: the shame. He told his father that he can choose to not come, but he himself will do as he wants. His father folded his bluff. Still, he suffers constantly from being distant with his family despite being totally frum, a nicer guy than I am, and having a bunch of cute kids. The book doesn’t spell it out, but the lessons she was taught make this clear enough.
The book is undermined by Feldman’s lack of maturity in other ways. She has a tendency to lump all non-Chasidic lifestyles together, failing to draw important distinctions within the broader world. In this manner, she refers to her desire to not be Chasidic as a desire to be “normal.” (Pg. 2141: “I’m going to be normal, so normal no one will ever know.”) On pg. 230 she writes that she doesn’t “own any normal clothing” so she buys jeans. But normal depends on context, and even wearing jeans can be a sign of conformity to a sub-sect (just ask the skinny jeans-wearing hipsters that share her maligned Williamsburg). It’s common among people leaving an insular world to be too blinded by the glare of The Outside World in their adjusting eyes to make out the gradients of other lifestyle and cultures. What is “normal,” and does a black community where basketball star Grant Hill is called an Uncle Tom  for being educated qualify? Chasidim aren’t the only ones that view education with suspicion and as cultural betrayal. Only in the epilogue is there a glimmer of awareness of this when she makes an insightful comparison between the community from which she departed and the New Orleans community she’s visiting. What’s normal in NOLA?
In the same vein, she shares with many ex-fundamentalists the trait of being too easily impressed. The teachers she meets are all paragons of brilliance, and her friends are all living lives worthy of jealousy. I could only cringe when she writes about meeting a poetry professor (pg 223), “I feel privileged just speaking to him.” Time would have left the admiration intact but put the fawning in perspective.
The lack of time also makes for a very rushed ending. From the time she decides to finally make a break for it to the end of the book is a breathless three pages. In those few pages she has enough time to assure us that everything is wonderful now, all her dreams came true (really!), and she regrets nothing. Lost in the haste to end on a saccharine note are some fascinating opportunities for reflection. Also inexplicable is the missed opportunity to see through her eyes how outsiders view Chasidim, something she gives only a tantalizing hint of (“people described them to my face as pushy, offensive, and unhygienic”). That glimpse of trouble in paradise begs for a more thorough exploration.
I’ve read many OTD-related books (heck, nearly all of them). Many are great books, some are insightful, and most had value. My critique of Unorthodox has nothing to do with her decision to leave Chasidism, or even observance. She left a sh**ty life, as she had every right to. Her personal circumstances were even more stifling and just plain atrocious than the average Satmar woman. Ms. Feldman’s book is, as I said, deeply flawed on its own merits.