The instant New York Times bestselling memoir of a young Jewish woman’s escape from a religious sect, in the tradition of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel and Carolyn Jessop’s Escape, featuring a new epilogue by the author.
As a member of the strictly religious Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism, Deborah Feldman grew up under a code of relentlessly enforced customs governing everything from what she could wear and to whom she could speak to what she was allowed to read. It was stolen moments spent with the empowered literary characters of Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott that helped her to imagine an alternative way of life. Trapped as a teenager in a sexually and emotionally dysfunctional marriage to a man she barely knew, the tension between Deborah’s desires and her responsibilities as a good Satmar girl grew more explosive until she gave birth at nineteen and realized that, for the sake of herself and her son, she had to escape.
Unorthodox is a behind-tightly-closed-doors examination of a culture and religious sect, one which discourages any such investigation or exploration.
Deborah Feldman’s book is a deep dive into a way of life that many readers may abhorrent. To members of that society, the book likely must be seen as an invasion of their cultural and social privacy, an expose of their clandestine ceremonies and customs. To curious readers, it is more likely an education, an opportunity to learn.
In some ways, the book may feel like a warm look at a culture that is family-oriented and parent-centred. The descriptions of the Yiddish culture are inviting to readers who are affectionate about family and child development. Feldman enlivens and colours her writing with the use of many Yiddish words and phrases that bring warmth, interest and colour to the story, likely helping readers get a better feel for the culture.
When Feldman delves into the religious aspects of the society, some readers may become more uncomfortable as her descriptions feel like intrusions into private family matters, things that are not intended for public viewing. The Yiddish phrases sources of warmth before, now become too much of an intrusion, allowing strangers allowed into the family home or deeper, into the family bedrooms. These strangers are being allowed to sit in on very private meetings meant only for the chosen membership.
Still, the book is interesting and educational, a revelation about the customs and ceremonies of a particular Jewish sect, the Satmar Hasidim, an ultra-orthodox branch of Judaism founded by Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum in 19th century Hungary. The book takes the reader behind tightly closed doors to see something the general population never sees, a society and culture that enslaves their society by extremely restrictive and very regulated social, cultural and religious rules.
Feldman’s book is an emotionally heavy read with many highs and lows. A reader’s personal philosophy designates which ones dominate the story, the uppers or the downers.
Many readers may sympathize with Feldman as she is coerced into religious customs and ceremonies many people would find uncomfortable. Those sympathies may grow as we read about her medical and marital problems, problems treated by professionals in our society but in her culture, secreted away and left untreated or treated by seniors in the community reputed to have experience with such issues.
Reading this book helps one learn about a culture and religion some might label as being too restrictive and regimented. Adherents of more liberal religions might find this Hasidic sect suffocating. As a young girl, Feldman did and dreamed of escaping it somehow, someday. She did and then wrote about it.
Unorthodox is not a joyous read. It is not uplifting even though many readers may cheer and applaud Feldman for escaping. The Hasidic culture and religion were imprisonment for her, shackling her to a life of regulation and regimentation that forbid her from experiencing and exploring more liberal worlds to which she was relentlessly drawn. For her sake, many would be gladdened.
A book that is worth reading as one learns how restricted life can be in the name of religion and the entanglements of culture.