Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots

The Narrative: Deborah Feldman recounts her life in the Satmar Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York, beginning with her childhood and ending with the present.  She describes what it was like to grow up as an inquisitive child in an environment so restrictive that she was forced to smuggle copies of Pride and Prejudice into her bedroom, and how she eventually decided to break away from her community and pursue a secular life.

The Author: Deborah Feldman grew up in the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn New York.  Since leaving the Satmar Hasidic community she has finished a degree at Sarah Lawrence college and begun work on a non-profit organization to help women who leave religious communities.  She is currently writing a second memoir.

Why It’s Awesome: Unorthodox is a window into a community that outsiders are only rarely given glimpses of. Feldman tells her story simply and unflinchingly, not shying away from its disturbing moments but not overloading them with emotion either.  She seems to be doing her best to treat the people of her past fairly, explaining what might have motivated them to do the things she so disagreed with. I was drawn into the memoir from the beginning; once I had started reading I couldn’t stop until I’d finished.

The rituals and rules of the Satmars are sometimes alien, but they are rooted in universal concerns about what it means to be part of a community, to be a free person, and to be moral.  Feldman brings out those universal qualities, bridging the distance between the reader and the people she describes, sharing her own struggles to find morality and meaning in a world that too often seems arbitrary.

Each chapter begins with a quote from another writer, from Roald Dahl to Jane Austen. Feldman’s love of literature and desire for knowledge saturate her writing, and her work is a reminder of how powerful and freeing books can be.  Her courage and faith in her own instincts are inspiring, and the story of her gradual rejection of her childhood community is fascinating.

Why It’s Not Awesome: Having just read The Magnificent Ambersons, I have to say that Feldman’s writing lacks the elegance of Tarkington’s.  Her style is clear and no frills, very readable but without any particularly delicious turns of phrase.

I did want a little more detail near the end of the memoir.  Feldman doesn’t say much about the reactions of her family to her decision to leave the Hasidic community, and she is a trifle vague on the practical details of leaving behind her home, possessions and husband. The actual act of leaving seemed like it would be the natural climax of Feldman’s story, but she provided less detail about it than about many of the events of her childhood.

The Final Judgment: A fascinating memoir with insights into a usually closed community.

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