I’ve heard positive things about the Netlix miniseries Unorthodox, so I was excited when Deborah Feldman’s memoir was proposed as a possible subject for my “Pandemic Book Club.” Sadly, the promising topic of a woman cutting ties with her Hasidic upbringing didn’t live up to my expectations, largely due to the blandness of the author’s writing, partially due to my absolute lack of shock at anything the book reveals.
Feldman’s memoir describes her childhood, in which she’s brought up in a strict Satmar Hasidic household in Brooklyn by her grandparents. Her father has an unspecified mental impairment and her mother has left the community (we later learn she is lesbian), so her Bubby and Zeidy are her de facto parents, with unsolicited help from her domineering Aunt Chaya. Feldman’s story traces her early life through her arranged marriage at 17, her difficulty consummating the marriage with her new husband, the birth of her son, and her eventual separation from the community at age 20.
Feldman shares how important reading was to her as a child, and how she had to sneak to the library: “I don’t have a library card, so I can’t take books home with me. I wish that I could, because I feel so extraordinarily happy and free when I read that I’m convinced it could make everything else in my life bearable, if only I could have books all the time.” She reads adventure stories like James and the Giant Peach, and novels with strong female characters like Jane Eyre. When she does get her hands on a book that she can take home, she hides the forbidden material under her mattress and has to read in secret.
Meanwhile, she watches as her Bubby shaves her head at the instruction of their new rebbe (rabbi). Feldman recalls how her grandmother resisted at first, but eventually agreed to cut off her hair (and wear wigs instead) at her grandfather’s insistence: “It’s a new rule. All the men are telling their wives to do it. You want me to be the only man whose wife doesn’t shave her hair? Nu, an embarrassment like that you want to bring down on our family?” When Bubby finally shaves her head, she tells Feldman it was “nothing.” Feldman grows up learning that women need to cover every part of their bodies from their collarbone to their wrists and knees. If they don’t uphold these high standards of modesty, they will cause men to sin, which is apparently worse than the sin itself.
When Feldman turns 17, her family arranges a marriage for her. The buildup to the event is sort of exciting for her, but the reality of being married to a virtual stranger soon takes its toll and she realizes she has no more freedom as a grown woman than she had as a child. Having zero sexual experience between them (and having learned to be embarrassed by her body from an early age), Feldman and her husband Eli are unable to consummate the marriage for over a year. When she finally gives birth to a son, Feldman starts taking classes at a local college and plans her escape.
A huge problem with this memoir is the clinical tone in which the author shares her life story. I can admire an author who exercises restraint, but Feldman’s style is downright antiseptic, leaving me completely without any emotional investment for her journey. Additionally, this memoir might be more moving to someone who is easily shocked by the big reveal that organized religion is oppressive. Yes, the way women are raised to think they are responsible for men’s actions, that they must shave their heads and cover their arms so as not to provide temptation, that they must undergo a ritual “cleansing” before having relations with their husbands, that the religious elders cover up an incident where a young boy is molested and the victim is made to pay the price: all that is horrible. None of it, however, made me think about the world in a different way. Having been raised Catholic, I’m familiar with organized religion. In my experience, the majority of Catholics pick and choose which parts of the religion to which they want to adhere (the term for this is “Cafeteria Catholic,” which is either a derogatory term or a source of pride, depending on your point of view). However, if you look at the segments who enthusiastically embrace the rule of law, you will see the same themes. My brother, when he was alive, attended an extremely conservative church that celebrated the mass in Latin, adhering to pre-Vatican II rules. The women in this sect typically wear long skirts (not just while attending mass) and wear head coverings while in Church. Obviously this isn’t as extreme as the type of rules Feldman describes, but the theme is the same: organized religion is largely concerned with power dynamics and maintaining control. The parallel when it comes to covering up sexual scandal at the expense of the victims goes without saying.
The one detail that did surprise me was that in Feldman’s community, they were taught that the Holocaust was God’s punishment of the Jews for trying to “enlighten themselves.” She writes, “He came to clean us up, eliminate all the assimilated Jews, all the frei Yidden who thought they could free themselves from the yoke of the chosen ones. Now we atone for their sins.” Self-hate runs deep in this community.
Lacking emotional resonance, Unorthodox is an impersonal description of life in a Satmar community. The details are somewhat interesting; I just wish Feldman had become a more polished writer before attempting do justice to this tale.