Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots (Simon & Schuster, 2012) is Deborah Feldman’s memoir of growing up in Brooklyn in the most insular of Chasidic sects, the Satmars. Fathered by the village idiot and abandoned by her mother, Feldman is raised by her grandparents, a bride at 17, a mother at 19, and a divorcee at 22—at which age she enrolls in Sarah Lawrence University and cuts ties with the Satmar.
Arriving, coincidentally, with recent revelations of sex abuse in the Chasidic community and a mass, “black hat” rally against the Internet, Feldman’s memoir has caused quite a stir, although I’m not sure why. Of course, it’s no surprise that the community she left behind would shun her, but a careful reader who checks her or his own baggage at the door will find a measured and thoughtful accounting of growing up Satmar. The book is not Satmar-bashing, and I wish it were better understood that Feldman’s community is not simply Jewish, Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox, or Chasidic. It’s Satmar, the secretive and cloistered Chasidic sect that Hella Winston wrote about in Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels (Beacon Press, 2005). Only Winston writes as a sociologist and ethnographer who infiltrates, while Feldman writes as an insider who later emigrates.
The pleasure in reading Feldman’s memoir is in the mutual discovery of new worlds. As Feldman finds forbidden fruit in the public library, discovering the childhood favorites we grew up with (The Chronicles of Narnia and James and the Giant Peach), we discover her world—the traditional girls school, the isolated summer camp, and how she is educated (or not) in the religious laws of modesty and purity that govern dress, menstruation, and sex. We discover Feldman’s inner world as she shares her thoughts, struggling to reconcile her independent mind with the conformity that is expected of her. We hear her giggles, gripes, doubts, critiques, and challenges to the status quo, which she accomplishes without wholly skewering the people around her. Her accounting of her past is remarkably intimate, frank, and compelling.
Some have identified Unorthodox as a coming of age story, a bildungsroman. I prefer to identify it as kuntslerroman—a story of the artist’s progress, in this case, a literary artist. In fact, the pieties handed down by Feldman’s teachers remind me of the priest’s lectures to Stephen Dedalus’ class in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, also the tale of a literary artist.
The quality of Feldman’s writing is especially remarkable, given the fact that this is her first book, which she wrote in a non-native language: English. Feldman’s first language is Yiddish, and not a literary Yiddish at that. In her Satmar world, most literature was “verboten,” including Torah because its contents are too racy.
The final chapter, however, disappoints as it lacks craft. Every other sentence begins with “I.” Too many proclamations and not enough substance. Too many loose ends left untied. How does she support herself and her young son? Does she maintain a relationship with her grandparents? Does she continue to practice Judaism, and, if so, how? Although these important questions go unanswered, they are apparently the subject of the follow-up memoir she is developing. I hope she can bring as much insight to a book that addresses her recent past as she has brought to describing a past going back roughly 20 years.