Monday, September 3, 2012

UNorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman 2012

"'Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots' by 25-year-old Deborah Feldman ... is painfully good. Through a narrative voice that is almost hypnotic, she puts you immediately in the center of her chaotic world." from a review by Elaine Margolin in 2/10/2012

A number of negative comments can be made about this memoir, starting with the title which sensationalizes the “scandalous” nature of the author’s narrative. But to focus on the negative is to miss the larger, quite compelling, story about the author’s childhood and adolescence and her struggle to leave the Satmar Hasidic community in which she was raised.

For those interested in the Satmar Hasidic community this memoir has a lot to offer, keeping in mind that it’s written by a disenchanted young woman who I think would say feels traumatized by her upbringing. Drawing from her own experiences, Feldman discusses how women are raised and treated within the Satmar religious community. The restrictions and expectations are limiting, and Feldman, a questioning child, found herself frequently in trouble at school. At 17 she entered into an arranged marriage and  she describes the highly ritualized process of meeting her future husband’s mother, then the occasion of meeting her future husband, then the tradition of gift-giving, then the role of the mikvah, then the wedding itself, then the marriage.

Her marriage was hollow. There was no place in her marriage or in the community for her to satisfy her hunger to explore and experience the world, especially the world of the mind, because the needs of the community took precedence over the needs of any individual. So, after five years of marriage and one child, she left. Beyond her own needs, she felt strongly that she provide her son with opportunities he would not have had if he had grown up a Satmar Hasid.

Feldman includes a disclaimer at the beginning of the memoir that states that all identifying names and characteristics have been changed and some events conflated and transposed to honor people’s privacy, but she also includes many family photos which probably are only identifiable within the Satmar community. Despite the disclaimer, she has been called to task by members of the Satmar community who have pointed out inaccuracies and who call her motives into question, emphasizing that the picture she paints of the community is one-sided and, therefore, distorted. But Feldman calls it as she sees it, and it’s understandable that she would ruffle many feathers.

Although the author is critical of much of the beliefs and behavior within the community, she tries to understand her grandparents who raised her, and she agrees with those who feel that the contemporary Hasidic way of life is, to some degree, a reaction to the heavy losses in their community during World War II. Satmars take to heart the belief promulgated within the community that the Holocaust was a punishment from God because so many Jews had strayed from a devout religious life. It is clear that the author feels that this belief, often repeated by teachers in schools, has the effect of further insolating and isolating its adherents.

To read an article in the New York Times about Hasidic Jews and clothing traditions, click here.

To watch a three-part of a video of a Satmar wedding when the Grand Rebbe engages in a ritualized dance with the bride - his youngest daughter , click here for part 1.  Click here for part 2. Click here for part 3. The three together add up to less than a half an hour.

There are no names to list as all names, except the author’s, have been changed.

Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY
Kiryas Joel, New York


  1. Overall, I enjoyed this book. I'm fascinated with accounts of women (and men) who manage to escape from extreme religious backgrounds, and Unorthodox is the first book I've read about the Hasidic community. I was very interested to read about Feldman's day-to-day life in Williamsburg, including the bizarre (to me) religious rituals and the community's treatment of women.

  2. I thought she did a good job of telling her story. I thought the title was constructed (probably by the publisher's publicity department) to sell books and I don't think it does justice to the contents.