“Unorthodox” Offers Fascinating Glimpse into a Private World

I usually write about television, but I completely forgot to DVR the show I was going to review. Then, I couldn’t get the video of it to play online. So, I’ve come to the conclusion that the universe is trying to tell me to do something else, and that’s talk about a new book that I had to stop myself from reading all in one sitting. 

Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots was a book right up my alley, and after reading a short blurb about it in Marie Claire, I ordered it off of Amazon. A memoir by Deborah Feldman, a 25-year-old woman raised in the Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism, it’s not a story you can say you’ve read before. Feldman has been all over the news telling her tale, and our very own Coco Papy conducted an awesome interview with her in February, which gives terrific insight into her life and what has happened to her since the book was published.

Here’s a quick synopsis of Unorthodox: growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, before it was invaded by starving artists and hipsters, Feldman was surrounded by her fellow Satmars and taught to distrust non-Jews – after all, her Bubbe told her, it was Gentile neighbors who turned Jews in during the Holocaust. Men and women couldn’t socialize, children weren’t allowed to visit the public library, couples were brought together by matchmakers, and most married women shaved their heads and either wore wigs or head scarves, since they believed that their natural hair was too alluring. Feldman married at 17, had a child at 19, and then, after years of struggle and questioning, left the community with her son.

I am not religious myself, and wasn’t raised to be; I wasn’t baptized a Catholic (like my dad) or Lutheran (like my mom), but I have been fascinated by religions since I was very, very young. Some of it must stem from the fact that my private elementary school was nonsectarian, but it was connected to a Jewish temple. I grew up seeing slices of Jewish life, and found it intriguing. Although I wasn’t exposed to Orthodox Judaism, that was what I found most fascinating, and I used to love when I found myself in Los Angeles on a Saturday morning, watching all of the Orthodox families heading to synagogue through the Fairfax District. In the land of sunshine and tans, here were people all bundled up like we were in the middle of a European winter. I always wondered, how could these people keep with their traditions in such a modern society? I still wonder, and that’s exactly why I was drawn to this book.

Unorthodox is an easy read, although someone who is not familiar with Hasidic Judaism might find themselves with some questions. It is easy to get lost in an afternoon of Googling, since there are so many Hasidic sects around the world to learn about. What was so interesting about Feldman’s account is that the Satmar are very private; unlike the Chabad-Lubavitch, who have Chabad Houses across the globe and a telethon every year, the Satmar do not seek out the media or welcome attention from the outside. While some of this information she shared was known, it is beyond unusual for someone to leave and then talk about it. Especially a woman, considering that, according to Feldman, they aren’t encouraged to do much more than keep a home, and Yiddish, not English, is the dominant language.

I sat down and devoured the book, but since I hate myself sometimes for doing that and not stretching the goodness out, I actually stopped myself at the part right before she got married. I put the book down, and instead thought I would get my fix by reading more about Feldman. She has a website and a Tumblr, which of course I found myself transfixed by. What was even more interesting – and not at all surprising – were the blog posts and articles I found with Satmar people calling Feldman out, saying she is a liar and misrepresenting her family and the entire Satmar community. Considering they are not allowed to have televisions or use the Internet, I wondered how they justified this.

People have posted photos of a young Feldman, smiling for the camera, which obviously means that she wasn’t unhappy growing up. These critics don’t note that she also included photos in her own book of her smiling; if she was trying to hide any signs of happiness, wouldn’t she have omitted them? They also say that Feldman, who was raised by her paternal grandparents, lied about her mother abandoning her as a toddler. They presented a photo of Feldman, at about age seven, with her mom and dad, as proof.

This is something you see whenever anyone leaves a sheltered community – just look at the women who escaped from Fundamentalist Mormons compounds. They are called disgraces, agents of the devil, and worse. Smear campaigns are started, and people come out of the woodwork to talk about how evil they are and how no one ever trusted them. It is upsetting to see these attempts to silence women, and make them afraid to tell their stories.

The other night, I picked the book back up and finished it. I don’t want to give too much away, but Feldman was very open about the issues she faced right after getting married, both with intimacy and just getting along with her husband, which made the second part of the book even more compelling than the first. Feldman ends Unorthodox right when she has left the Hasidic community, and already I’m looking forward to the second memoir she said she will write, to find out what the transition was like. I can’t imagine what it’s like to experience such a dramatic shift, to play catch up on 25 years of life.

Although I was drawn to Unorthodox because of my interest in the subject, you don’t have to be fascinated by religion to enjoy the book. It’s a story about empowerment, realizing who you really are, and taking control of your life. I highly recommend it.

By Catherine

Catherine is a Southern California based freelance writer, whose work has appeared in everything from the New York Times to Entertainment Weekly. The highlight of her life (so far) was being featured on MSNBC for a story she wrote on Hello Kitty wines...she knew one day her love of all things HK would come in handy.

7 replies on ““Unorthodox” Offers Fascinating Glimpse into a Private World”

1)    The point of the Feldman photo was not that she smiles. Rather that while she claims that the mother abandoned her and the family when Deborah was a toddler, the photo shows Feldman standing with both her parents at age seven… (DF later said that while indeed mother was still in Williamsbrug, she was already away from the family.)


2)    Speaking of photos, some photos show DF as a student in the most Liberal Hasidic school in Williamsburg (Veen) and later a student at Jewish School in Manhattan. If readers knew that DF attended those two schools before age nine-ten, they would doubt that her family was so rigid, and thus half her book would not stand. So ‘for the sake of the narrative’, she starts presenting details of her life of age nine or ten, which also helps her avoid speaking why she needed to start going to Satmar school (hint: After being expelled from those two liberal schools, her only opion was going to Satmar where her aunt that she slamms in the book had pull to place her there…)


3)    BTW, her parents had another daughter who was born in 1994, when Deborah was age nine. More oddly, this sister lived with mother (when mother left Williamsburg in 2003, when Deborah was fifteen), until late 2011-early 2012. But of course, DF does not mention the sister because then the sob story of a mother abandoning a family flies out the window.


4)    Globe and Mail caught DF by a lie just days ago, and Feldman admitted in the interview that “for the sake of the narrative,” she creates facts. Here is background: DF claimed her community is so insular that she learned of 9/11 only 3:00 PM when her Zaidy came home with the WSJ that reported about it. Now 1) Rigid Hasidim don’t pick up even the clean WSJ. 2) The WSJ did NOT produce an edition on 9/11 regarding the attacks; certainly not for Zaidy to hold a copy six hours later. 3) Williamsburg is across the East River of Ground Zero. 100’s of people stood at the water front; 100’s more at street corners and atop roof tops and saw the mess up front. So her bull does not stand as is. When boxed in during the G&M interview about the WSJ lie, Feldman admitted playing with facts for the sake of the narrative. She also admits in the globe interview that this way of writing ”applies to the entire story.”


5) If Feldman buries her sister and publishes Wall Street Journals “for the sake of the narrative,” despite that a Google search can debunk it, what other facts and stories did she create “for the sake of the narrative” yet cannot be proven one way or another?

I feel like you and I need to be friends, because we seek out the same TV shows and books! I’ve been dying to read this ever since I heard about it, and after encountering a ton of the really negative reviews that I wondered about being an attempt to discredit the author, it’s good to read a detailed and positive review of it. I’m Jewish but barely observant and have only learned more about some of the very conservative/observant sects relatively recently, so that made me even more interested in reading the book.

Let’s be friends! :) I really think you’ll enjoy this book, and I do think the negative reviews came from people who are just upset that she’s talking about her experience. They think it’s terrible that she left, but infinitely worse that she’s speaking out. In no way is it deserving of some of the nasty reviews that I’ve seen!

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