Well, I do love a good memoir, and especially during Lent, a good memoir about a spiritual journey or quest. I’ve read so many books by Christian women about travelling into, out of, or around their faith, that I’m always on the lookout for books by women from other faith backgrounds. So it was hardly surprising that I jumped on Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox, subtitled “The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots.”
Hasidic Judaism is one of those subcultures that’s fascinating to a lot of us on the outside, and Feldman does a good job here depicting the extremely insular Brooklyn community in which she grew up, and which she eventually left. If I have one quibble with the book it’s with a certain naievte or lack of subtlety that sometimes comes with a memoir by a very young author. I’m not one of those hardened cynics who believes that nobody under 30 should write a memoir — if younger writers have had interesting life experiences, there’s no reason they shouldn’t tell their stories — but sometimes, when reading such stories, it’s hard not to wish that the author had had the benefit of a few more years’ perspective and reflection before putting pen to paper. Unorthodox is a good story (though I really dislike the self-congratulatory use of the word “scandalous” in the subtitle), but it’s very much written in medias res, seemingly composed in the breathless moments right after Feldman took her young son, left her Hasidic husband — who seems like a half-decent fellow, if only their subculture had given either him or Feldman a chance to grow up before binding them in marriage — and set out on her own journey.
I guess what I mean about the naievte and immaturity is encapsulated in the fact that one of Feldman’s great moments of self-directed freedom near the end of the book comes when she … wait for it … smokes a cigarette. It’s pretty horrific to think any young woman in this day and age could see that as a freeing, life-enhancing choice (Feldman proudly includes a picture of herself having a smoke, just in case you didn’t believe her). It’s certainly a comment on the narrowness of the world in which she was raised, but also a comment on how close she is to leaving that world, and the limitations of her ability to critique her own choices. It feels like the ink is barely dry, which gives the story both that frustrating immaturity, but also a refreshing immediacy. There’s a moment of perspective near the end when she revisits her old neighbourhood and realizes that all the while she was living what she felt was a boring life and longing for excitement, she was actually living in a world that would have seemed exotic to the average American teenager. But that kind of perspective is achieved too rarely in this memoir.
Apparently Feldman is at work on a second volume of her story: I’ll be interested to see where it takes her. This was an enjoyable read, even if I found myself wishing she’d waited five years to write it.