I will devour any nonfiction related to reclusive communities of any stripe – I can’t get enough. So after whizzing through the Netflix series Unorthodox back when we thought quarantine was gonna be over by like, April (ha), I decided to check out Deborah Feldman’s memoir exploring her upbringing in the rigid Orthodox Jewish Satmar community in Brooklyn, and her decision to leave.
Feldman is an accomplished writer, and I can tell why the Brooklyn-set scenes of Unorthodox the TV show felt so much more compelling than the Berlin-set ones–her real life, rather than the arc they invented for her character on the show, is so incredibly fascinating. Feldman grew up in the Satmar community in precarious circumstances, with a mentally ill father and an absent mother, raised by aging grandparents in a society governed by strict rules. Feldman found escape through reading forbidden books, stashed away in her room–American classics like Little Women that opened her mind to a world beyond her community, even as her education was limited and her job opportunities were slim.
The details from Feldman’s early life are rich and deliberate, without feeling like a religious studies lecture (though readers might benefit from a bit of background knowledge of Jewish holidays and the like beforehand). The structure of the Hasidic community is clear, with enough detail to understand why some, like Feldman’s grandparents who raised her, thrive in this structure while others such as Feldman herself and her mother (who Feldman later discovers in a documentary about ex-Hasids coming out as gay) feel they have to leave. Feldman also sensitively discusses the history of the Hasidic community in America, and how, arriving in America as WWII refugees has affected their community development, relationships with other Jewish populations, internal schisms (especially over handling family breakdowns or sexual abuse in the community), and wider tensions with the cities they call home. All this leads to Feldman entering an arranged marriage and having a child, all in an effort to put down roots in a community where she is often ostracised for her precarious parentage. What results is a nuanced and fascinating story of one woman’s decisions, and the freedom she embraced.
Unlike the TV adaptation, Feldman’s break from Orthodox Judaism isn’t as clean–after she and her husband relocate to Upstate New York, she begins attending classes at Sarah Lawrence and ever-so-slowly enters a secular life. She begins to learn more about the ‘gentile’ world, and the limitations that have been placed both on her and her husband–while women in the Satmar community are barely taught to read and write, and leave education far before state laws allow, Satmar men are also limited to pursuing Torah study or taking over the family business. The limitations of Feldman’s world are so severe she barely understands her own body as it undergoes the changes of pregnancy, her anxiety disorder goes mostly-undiagnosed and treated with unscientific methods, and she struggles to maintain boundaries with her in-laws, especially regarding her sexuality. All the while, she wrestles with the deep spirituality she still feels, the comfort of Jewish traditions, and her deep bond with her grandmother she can’t bear to leave behind. The inner turmoil Feldman feels really jumps out in the first half, and I couldn’t keep it down.
But the second half of the book felt draggier. There is a caginess to the narrative as Feldman heads toward the end of her story, almost as though she’s hiding something. Years of planning her escape become condensed into a few pages. She starts going to college classes, dares to shed her wigs and long skirts for jeans and natural hair, bonds with a few other mature students at Sarah Lawrence, and… gets a book deal to write this very memoir. I wish that Feldman had waited a little longer and put some more distance between her old life and her new life before writing. Just her experience at Sarah Lawrence could have been enough to fill another book, and the rushing through these formative moments reminded me of why Tara Westover’s Educated left me a little cold too. Detail, people, I want detail!!
The memoir still leaves a lot unanswered, especially when it comes to her son, who she, at the time of this memoir, has joint custody of with her husband, who remains in the Hasidic sect. Her second memoir Exodus touches on this a bit more, but unfortunately I found that to be more a collection of half-finished chapters than a real memoir–I know Feldman has become a controversial figure among Hasidic people current and former, and unfortunately I wouldn’t be surprised if some material got cut both from Unorthodox and Exodus to avoid too much heat. Feldman is a talented writer, and I hope to read more of her perspective–I just hope it’s a bit more clear next time.
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