Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots

Title: Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots

Author: Deborah Feldman

Rating: <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

Summary: n the tradition of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel and Carolyn Jessop’s Escape, Unorthodox is a captivating story about a young woman determined to live her own life at any cost.
The Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism is as mysterious as it is intriguing to outsiders. In this arresting memoir, Deborah Feldman reveals what life is like trapped within a religious tradition that values silence and suffering over individual freedoms.
The child of a mentally disabled father and a mother who abandoned the community while her daughter was still a toddler, Deborah was raised by her strictly religious grandparents, Bubby and Zeidy. Along with a rotating cast of aunts and uncles, they enforced customs with a relentless emphasis on rules that governed everything from what Deborah could wear and to whom she could speak, to what she was allowed to read. As she grew from an inquisitive little girl to an independent-minded young woman, stolen moments reading about the empowered literary characters of Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott helped her to imagine an alternative way of life. She had no idea how to seize this dream that seemed to beckon to her from the skyscrapers of Manhattan, but she was determined to find a way. The tension between Deborah’s desires and her responsibilities as a good Satmar girl grew more explosive until, at the age of seventeen, she found herself trapped in a sexually and emotionally dysfunctional marriage to a man she had met for only thirty minutes before they became engaged. As a result, she experienced debilitating anxiety that was exacerbated by the public shame of having failed to immediately consummate her marriage and thus serve her husband. But it wasn’t until she had a child at nineteen that Deborah realized more than just her own future was at stake, and that, regardless of the obstacles, she would have to forge a path—for herself and her son—to happiness and freedom.

Review: Deborah Feldman's Unorthodox, is a memoir, as she describes it, that takes you into the first twenty-three years of this young woman's life in the world of the Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism.  In this world as a young child, Deborah is looked down upon because her family feels shame because of her parents, because her father is mentally disabled and her Mother left the sect long ago because of secrets that Deborah will not learn the answer to until she is into her late teen years.  As she grows up in her grandparents home, Deborah faces ridicule from the other girls in her all girls private school because her Grandfather Zeidy, does not believe in wealth through secular material goods therefore she is not given new clothes or trinkets, like the other girls and subsists with second hand clothes and shoes during her childhood and adolescent years.  She must also follow the strict dress code for girls, while also remembering  to appear subservient to men at all times, and keeping her head low as a "good girl" should.  While a strong willed aunt has made most of the decisions about her life, including where she will live, who she will and will not see, and eventually she will help decide who Deborah will marry. Deborah does secretly mount small rebellions such as sneaking English books into her room, and hiding them under her mattress or behind her dresser, her desire for knowledge is insatiable, and her desire to escape the boundaries she is forced to live in being a "good girl" can be spotted even when she is a young child.
     As she is married off at seventeen to a boy she has seen twice, been alone with for thirty minutes, and only had the sexual world explained to her in a very limited class, with one woman who did a very poor and limited job with with a young woman who up until this point has been taught that this part of her body is forbidden and evil; Deborah and her husband experience serious sexual problems within their marriage which lead to criticism of her of course because she is the woman and the man cannot be seen at fault.  She goes through many psychological and sexual problems, and doctors, before they come to a type of resolution to the problem, but I still felt as a reader that more should have been done for her, she was so young, and her family should've realized at this point that marriage, a husband, and all they were pushing on her was too much for someone of her age, but because of their culture she was expected to perform her part, and she did to the best of her abilities, but at this part in the book I realized how selfish her relatives truly were and I prayed she would get out soon for the sake of her mental and physical health.  There is a stark turning point in the book which you realize, it happens soon after Deborah starts attending college, she has an awakening, so she takes her son, gets a rental car, and leaves her husband and the community; I breathed a sigh of relief, as hard as I knew it had to be for her, I thought it had to be less dangerous then the situation she was in presently.  There is a picture of Deborah sitting on a bench near the end of the book, and unlike the other pictures of her she looks happy and free, like she can finally breathe, this was a true happy ending for me.

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