Friday, September 27, 2013
Nonfiction: Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Date: February 2012
Source: Honors College
Read: for an informal reading group
Reading time: about 4-6 days
Synopsis: This is the memoir of Deborah Feldman, a young woman who grew up in the ultra-orthodox Satmar Hasidic Jewish community of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York. The daughter of a mother who left the community and a mentally-disabled father, Deborah was raised by her grandparents. She married in her late teens and had a son but found it increasingly difficult to adhere to her community's strict rules and expectations for women and for wives. Deborah's memoir is her story of growing up in the Satmar community and of her eventual decision to leave it for a college education and a new life for herself and for her son.
My review: I found Unorthodox enlightening. I am interested in insular religious communities such as the Hasids, and Feldman provides an intimate glimpse into the beliefs and practices, both public and private, of the ultra-orthodox Satmar group. I thought that, overall, she provided a good balance between describing the community and describing her own negative reactions to it without necessarily vilifying the group and its practices as a whole. I also appreciated the stark openness with which Feldman describes her marriage in particular, including her and her husband's initial difficulty in consummating their marriage as well as other issues in their relationship.
The first part of the book was well-developed, and I felt like readers gain a broad picture of what Feldman's childhood and adolescence were like. The second half of the memoir, though, was much different. Events seemed more compressed, like there was a lot that was left out about Feldman's personal transformation and the factors that caused the change. There were several questions that I, and the other members of the reading group in which I participated, were left with about some of the details of Feldman's and her family's lives. In particular, I wish we had heard more about her mother's story (though, of course, that story is perhaps not Feldman's to tell), since it later appears more complex than "simply" being caught in a bad marriage and feeling like a misfit in the community.
Note: The paperback and hardcover editions have two different epilogues, since the paperback was published some months later and Feldman decided to include more about her life since the initial publication of her memoir.