Unorthodox, by Deborah Feldman (LentBooks 2012 #2)

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.



Filed under LentBooks, Nonfiction -- memoir

3 responses to “Unorthodox, by Deborah Feldman (LentBooks 2012 #2)

  1. Hasidism, and Orthodoxy and the pursuit of religion

    I am totally NOT Hasidic, and you can choose to believe that or not.

    Heres my observation (if Im allowed one that might differ from others here).

    How many people in the entire world are Hasidic? Of that number, how many leave?

    As for the girls:

    Before Hasidic girls get married, most end up working outside totally Hasidic circles, except for the tiny percentage who are teachers in their school system. Those who work in Hasidic owned businesses, work side by side with many people who are either not Hasidic or not Jewish, so they have ample time to form opinions and run for their life with their savings, and switch gears, if they feel the outside world is more appealing.

    As for the boys:

    Many of the boys study in countries far away from home, before marriage. Theyre known to tour all parts of the country they study in, and mingle with secular Jews regularly. While Im sure theyre not totally free to come and go all hours of the day and night, they’re totally able to get around. They leave the school grounds regularly, throughout their stay.

    If they wanted to leave Hasidism, they’re able to get jobs as factory laborers or lowly office workers, to begin with, and leave Hasidism, and work their way up.

    All in all, its less than 1% of guys or girls who do so.

    While becoming independent might not be easy, I think if young adults feel theyre really suffocating, they undoubtedly do what they have to do!!! These days many in the Hasidic community attend Touro College, and get advanced degrees, while still remaining Hasidic. It not like everyone Hasidic is against secular education. Thats fictional.

    There are no communities in the world where all kids remain identical or highly similar to the parents. One percent leaving with these circumstances is miniscule!

    Now, among the tiny 1% who leave, most end up joining Footsteps (way under a thousand members, in total, since Footsteps was founded years ago), an organization that helps them modernize. Nothing wrong with that, in my mind, when it involves increased education, and not decreased morals. The staff tries their best to get these guys and girls college degrees. Otherwise, Footsteps funding would get cut. Footsteps has to prove results. Members are asked to offer praise of the organization to remain with the organization.

    Throughout the USA, immigrants, with normal IQs, who have difficulty with English, get college degrees VERY quickly!

    By comparison, only a very small percentage of Footsteppers (the gathering place for those who left, who are predominantly those with lower IQs), end up getting college degrees, because theyre NOT the “shiniest crayons in the box”.
    Aside from those like Mr Katz, most of those who leave Hasidism and join Footsteps, are foul mouths and shall we say, not those possessing the brightest, sharpest minds, and the ability and/or patience to study, and for that reason, graduate Footsteps with a GED and an “MA” degree- Mocking Ancestors, and not much more. They cant do better than that.

    Hate and mockery is much easier to catch on to and parrot/learn than medicine, law and other academics .Footsteps has to be doing something with them that theyre able to keep up with, to keep them offering praise in writing.

    The brighter, more psychologically sound among Hasids who want to leave Hasidism, end up going to college, all on their own, and don’t seek the company of others who like to mock religious people. Theyre busy advancing academically.

    Thats where they go in two separate directions, the brighter on their own, who usually end up perhaps not Hasidic, but still religious. The lesser bright towards Footsteps, where most of those shed their religious practices totally and more often than not, because of minimal brainpower and lack of ability to study, dont exceed GED degrees, academically. This with the support of UJA, a Jewish organization, but obviously not too Jewish.

  2. Interesting material, though obviously not without bias. I don’t know who the “Mr. Katz” you refer to is. Is this comment in any way a response to Deborah Feldman’s book or my review of it?

  3. Dina

    Trudy, take what the first commenter says with many, many grains of salt. He seems to have written a very similar, defamatory comment on “” in the past couple of days. I found his remarks over there posted under a story concerning orthodox Jews who are forced to live double lives in their communities. Many of these people feel helplessly tied to cultures and belief systems that are very narrow minded, rigid, and highly judgmental – which is precisely reflected in the tone adopted by your first commenter! Notice how he denigrates and maligns a courageous group of individuals who opted out of an oppressive system – people who simply chose to leave and wish to live in the world in less restrictive ways. These folks often have very limited finances and support systems, yet their desire to understand and experience themselves and their surroundings through the lens of freedom is breathtaking in its boldness. They should be lauded for their bravery. Instead, your commenter is obviously threatened by these “escapees,” and finds ways to pick apart at them and at their highly admirable organization, “Footsteps.” In his gramatically challenged comment, he actually accuses these people of being under-educated. How’s that for irony? Does he not realize how ridiculous he sounds, how sorely uneducated HE comes across? Of course, he never acknowledges the fact that children in the Chasidic schools, especially boys, are DELIBERATELY kept under-educated in all secular subjects – English, social studies, math, etc. Thus, their ability to venture forth into the world and earn degrees, acquire jobs, and integrate successfully is severely impeded from the start. Which explains why their progress can be so arduous and slow, as there is a lot of catching up to do. Alas, your commenter curiously omits this vital piece of information from his post. I have one question……WHY?

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