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Unorthodox – Deborah Feldman

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Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman

272 pages

5/5 stars

I must admit that I was a little bit hesitant going into this book – I was afraid it would end up reading more like a textbook/history lesson. Luckily, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Unorthodox read like a novel with bits of truth thrown in for good measure. However, it’s obvious that it’s a memoir of Deborah’s life in the Satmar community of Williamsburg, New York. Growing up, Deborah spent her life being a religious Jew, not knowing there was a world outside the protective bubble of the Jewish community. She lived with her grandparents because her mother left the community when Deborah was young and her father was mentally handicapped. She spent Shabbat with her extended family, went to school with other Satmar Jews, and knew that she was destined for an arranged marriage and a life of having children.

But, she also saw beyond that bubble and knew she wanted to make a better life for herself, and later, for her son. She had to do a lot of gutsy things in order to leave the Hasidic community and I admire her strength. There are so many unfair things going on in the Satmar community, even today – molestation, disrespect of women, and more. As a Jew, albeit Reform, it is appalling to me that other Jews treat each other this way. Women are not meant for much more than marriage and having babies. They stop going to school just before their senior year so that they can get jobs and enter into an arranged marriage (usually set up by a matchmaker). It took Deborah more than a year to consummate her marriage and get pregnant – it was clear throughout those chapters that she resented her husband and their families for being so involved in that aspect of their lives. Nothing was private. They didn’t make any decisions without at least one family member sticking their nose where it didn’t belong.

I admire Deborah’s strength and tenacity to stand up for what she believed in and leave her community and the only life she’d ever known behind in order to be happy. It’s not an easy thing to stand up to your family and be willing to take that risk.

As far back as I can remember, I have always wanted everything from life, everything it can possibly give me. This desire separates me from people who are willing to settle for less. I cannot even comprehend how people’s desires can be small, their ambitions narrow and limited, when the possibilities are so endless. (Page 2)

I think there is fear in the Satmar community that terrible things will happen if people stray off the path of righteousness. It is that fear that prohibits people from experiencing life. I’m not judging them for their choices, but simply making a statement. For them, G-d comes before everything else, even family.

You leave when there’s nothing left to stay for; you go where you can be useful, where people accept you. (Page 4)

I just agreed with this. Deborah wanted to fit in and she found a way to do that. It’s brave and smart and I can’t help but admire her for doing so.

Even the smallest steps toward independence have consequences. (Page 219)

I highly recommend Unorthodox. It’s an enlightening read, whether or not you are Jewish. It will give you a different perspective and respect for the religion, even though some of the things Deborah shares will leave you questioning how anyone can respect the people who do terrible things. I only ask that when you read it, if you read it, and you have questions that you ASK someone or look it up online. Don’t assume. Educate yourself.

Copy purchased from Amazon

Reviewer: Brianna Soloski

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