on February 20, 2012
I start with this title, because after reading many of the reviews below, it seems that most people have not, and there is a not so subtle battle ensuing as people are defending their belief system against those that offend it. The reviews below remind me of those surrounding "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins, which simply became a battleground of athiests vs believers. Take most reviews and ratings with a grain of salt.
About the book:
WHAT I LIKED
1) This is a rare glimpse into the Satmar world, unique among books because a)The author is the rare person who got out b) She had the courage to write about it c) Has the decent enough English skills to do so (Yiddish is the first language for Satmar Jews)
2)It exposes the darker side of the Satmar sect, where religion is more a matter of appearances that true spiritual growth. It shows religious hypocrisy at its worst.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE
1) While the book is most certainly authentic in a general sense, I wonder about how much exaggeration there might be. The author is passionate and clearly has a very personal agenda. It remains a question how much the author allowed her emotions to stretch the truth at times. The incredulous murder story, (since debunked?) certainly lends some credence to these doubts.
2) The book seemed to delve into detail when such detail was boring, but often devoted only a short paragraph to matters that begged for more. Overall, there was too much on her childhood, not enough on the story of how she left.
3) While impressive for an ex-Hasid, it is not written particularly well.
When placed alongside books like "Infidel", by Hirsi (a woman who escaped from a Fundamentalist Muslim upbringing), or Krakauers "Under a Banner of Heaven" (about Mormon Fundamentalism) this pales in comparison in terms of style, content, and overall richness of the story. Still, for the reader interested in Hasidism, particularly Satmar, this will be an eye opening account, even if it is taken with a few grains of salt.
It should be stated that the Satmar community depicted in this book is far different from the Chabad Hasidism that was recently depicted by Oprah. There are many sects of Hasidism, and some, such as Chabad, and Breslover, are known for a more joyous and spiritual bend, as opposed to Satmar, which is considered far stricter. This should not be a person's sole source of knowledge on everything Hasidism, and certainly Jewish.
on April 17, 2012
Ms. Deborah Feldman's memoir drew me in immediately and held my attention throughout. Eleven-year-old Deborah is living in Williamsburg, NY in the Satmar Hasidic Jewish community with her grandparents, Bubby and Zeidy, who have raised 11 children, and aunt, Chaya, as primary care givers at the time this tale begins. Her father is mentally disabled and her mother is not in the picture at this point. Deborah is in the "smart" sixth grade class at the Satmar girls' school, where her aunt is principal of the elementary division. As the story continues to unfold throughout Ms. Feldman's teenage years, it becomes clear she is being groomed like the other Hasidic girls to marry at a young age, raise a large family and submit to the will of the elders in the church and community. She is an inquisitive child who loves to read a variety of secular books, something that is forbidden. She relays fond memories of working in the kitchen and talking with Bubby. Though she also has fond memories of Zeidy she recalls his severe frugality, forbidding her grandmother to buy new things to replace those that are worn out, such as threadbare carpets, even though he is a wealthy man. We learn that Bubby is a Holocaust survivor "near death from typhus by the time liberation came" and "whose every relation was brutally murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz while she labored in the factories of Bergen-Belson." Deborah graduates early without a New York State high school diploma, "for I will never be allowed to find work beyond the few positions available for women in our society." She does get a job teaching sixth grade in the girls' Hasidic school, while her aunt and grandparents undertake the search to find a husband for Deborah employing the services of a matchmaker. She hopes to find happiness with a husband who will share her interests and life, in a relationship where she won't feel like such an outsider. She is married at the age of 17, to 22-year-old Eli, who is a laborer in a warehouse. They both find living in the Williamsburg community too stifling and move to Monsey in upstate NY, where Eli's brothers and sisters live. Deborah has more freedom here and learns to drive a car. She has a son when she is 19. By the time he is a toddler she is taking classes at Sarah Lawrence College. Unhappy in her marriage, and feeling she has a chance at life on the outside, she breaks with the Hasidic community, divorces her husband at age 23 and sets to writing this book.
I really debated posting a review here. Quite a few have been written already and I've learned a lot reading those reviews. But, the animosity shown to Ms. Feldman and even other reviewers, as well as the deviousness, plotting to bring down her ratings, has lead me to throw in my two cents worth.
A memoir is a subclass of an autobiography. It is defined as an historical account, especially based on personal knowledge. It is nonfiction and should be as accurate as possible in relaying information.
I feel Ms. Feldman and her publisher, Simon and Schuster, let us down in at least two instances. She fails to inform us she has a younger sister who has been living with her mother, a public high school science teacher in Brooklyn, NY. On page 101 she says "On Shabbos my lack of family stands out more sharply than it does during the week. After all, I have no siblings to take care of and no older ones to visit." She may feel like she has no immediate family but the statement she makes leads one to believe she, in fact , has no siblings at all.
Ms. Feldman, and her publisher also fail to investigate and verify the details of an incident her husband relays to her about one of his brother's experiences working as an EMT, a Hatzolah member. Eli says his brother is called to a home where he encounters a young Jewish boy whose " ` penis was cut off with a jigsaw and his throat was slit too. And the father wasn't even upset. He said that he caught his son masturbating. ... He said they buried him in thirty minutes and they didn't even issue a death certificate. ` "
This inflammatory hearsay deserved to be researched before it was included in the book. Investigations by others (The Jewish Week and the Daily News) since the book's publication indicate that the young man probably died from slitting his own throat and the crime was investigated and not covered up.
I, like many other reviewers, learned a lot about the Satmar Hasidic community, the anti-Zionist movement, and even the educational system in NY. Because Ms. Feldman has piqued my curiosity, I will be reading additional material on these subjects including the book, Unchosen, by Hella Winston, that was recommended by another reviewer. I've already been discussing Ms. Feldman's book with family and friends. Her memoir has sparked a lot of interest among others as evidenced in the reviews and press she has received. Hopefully this will improve the situation for others, who are suffering as she did. The backlash and comments from some in this community clearly show their contempt for women.
I thought the first half of the book flowed better than the second half. In some instances I felt like there were abrupt jumps. It wasn't clear to me at what point she quit teaching. I'm curious how she was able to obtain custody of her son and if she shares custody with her former husband.
Lastly, I really debated how to rate this book. It failed in at least two areas to relay the truth. I hold Simon and Schuster to blame, more than Ms. Feldman for these lapses. She is a young and inexperienced writer, whereas Simon and Schuster is a publishing giant founded in 1924. I feel that Ms. Feldman has done a remarkable job, in writing her first book portraying a harrowing life story for one so young. I would like to give it 3 1/2 stars, but, since that's not an option it will have to be 3 stars. I wish Ms. Feldman well in her future endeavors.
This is a very intriguing book because it gives an insight into growing up in the Orthodox Jewish Hasidic community of Satmar. Although I was familiar with other Hasidic sects, the Satmar were new to me. She explains it mostly through the eyes of a child so I had to do a bit of on-line research to learn more about them. The biggest surprise is their complete opposition to Israel - they believe they must wait for the coming of the Messiah to return to their homeland - but much of the daily life seems similar (to me) to other Hasidic communities. From childhood, she longed for more in both learning and reading. She had to sneak to read English language books as they were forbidden but her hunger drove her to take the risk and she became fluent in English. This would help her professionally but also cause her to keep questioning what she saw around her. (Perhaps her elders were right - English leads to trouble, particularly for women!)
I know there will be criticism from some in the Jewish community who consider Ms. Feldman an apostate for leaving Orthodoxy, but leaving aside those ideological issues, there is a lot to learn from this book. I think she is careful to write very kindly of her grandparents (who raised her) even though her leaving must have been a great blow to them (she does not write about that) but she is frankly critical of the rigid rules and some of the hypocrisy she saw. I admire her honesty. And in her defense, this kind of expose could be written about many other closed groups - Amish, Morman, Christian fundamentalist, Muslims, Catholic monasteries, etc. In such an insular environment anyone who rebels against the group must appear to be a traitor to those who remain. It takes great courage to break out of such an intensely closed group and it often means being completely cutoff from family and friends. I hope in her case she will eventually get some closure with her family members but sometimes that doesn't happen. But whatever happens I hope she finds the peace and happiness she is searching for - experience says that the adjustment to her new life will take a long time but I think in the end she made the right choice because she would always feel enslaved had she stayed. No matter how good the community was, it was not the right life for her. Good luck to her.
And a personal note: I have some experience with such things. When I was much younger I was a cloistered Catholic nun for 10 years and the culture shock of leaving that life was immense. I think only someone who has been through that can truly appreciate it. And to Deborah Feldman I say: Hang in there - it is definitely worth it.
on February 29, 2012
First, I actually read the book. Secondly, I am a Roman Catholic, but I do have Jewish ancestry, which is what inspired me to read this book.
The author is very young and sometimes her writing seems amateur and immature. Other times, she seems to contradict herself, almost as if she is still having trouble parting with her faith; she probably is. Her upbringing, culture, and faith are her foundation and questions, parting with, and being highly critical of that foundation would make most wobble a bit and appear to make contradictions, especially at the age of 24.
That being said, she does a good job introducing the reader to a world and culture usually closed to outsiders; the world of the Satmar. Some of her claims seem unbelievable and far-fetched, such as a story about a man that kills his boy when he catches him masturbating. What makes this story even more unbelievable is her claim that the Jewish emergency service helped him cover-up the killing of his child and dispose of the body. This story is obviously not true. The author doesn't claim to have witnessed this event, but instead, she claims that her husband was told about this, from another source. I can see how someone raised in a culture that shuns televisions, the English language, newspapers, and just about any form of media, could easily be led to believe such a story. It is possible that the author made up this story to embellish the book, but it is more likely that she was told this story, by someone she trusted, and she was gullible enough to believe it.
This story is about a culture that turned insular, in an effort to survive and became repressive and oppressive. I was surprised to learn that orthodox Jewry in the Old World, in Europe, prior to the Holocaust, was not as strict as that which is practiced by the Satmar, or others that are referred to as Ultra-Orthodox. The Holocaust caused, for some, a reflex reaction, a desire to be a perfect Jew, in the hopes that God would reward by ensuring that another Holocaust never occurs.
The author's family is also very dysfunctional and would probably be so if they were Christian, Muslim, or any other faith. The more repressive aspects of the Satmar culture, especially with regards to women, probably worsened the author's upbringing, but these cultural aspects were being interpreted by damaged people.
As long as one keeps these facts in mind, you can read this book and learn quite a bit about Satmar culture. Don't condemn an entire culture because of one family. Don't forget that most Americans are not very many generations removed from a time when women were not equal in the eyes of the law and African Americans could be beaten for using the wrong drinking fountain. Every culture has its fair share of issues.
on June 23, 2012
Overall, I enjoyed this book. I'm fascinated with accounts of women (and men) who manage to escape from extreme religious backgrounds, and Unorthodox is the first book I've read about the Hasidic community. I was very interested to read about Feldman's day-to-day life in Williamsburg, including the bizarre (to me) religious rituals and the community's treatment of women.
However, I can't rate this book 5 stars because, as others have noted, the ending is rather abrupt and unsatisfying. Unlike the other extreme religion memoirs I've read, Feldman seems to have no trouble "escaping" her oppressive community. She simply gets in the car and drives away. Even though lawyers allegedly told her she would never be able to leave the Hasidic community with her son, she seems to have no problem whatsoever. I'm sure there's much more to the story, but the book doesn't give any information about how her family reacted to her decision to leave the community or how she managed to escape with her son.
Also, I don't understand where the author got her money. Deborah writes about not having enough money to buy maternity clothes or replace the worn tires on her car (which leads to a devastating accident), but she somehow has enough money to attend Sarah Lawrence --one of the most expensive, if not THE most expensive schools in the nation--and buy designer sunglasses and a Blackberry. Not to mention, renting an apartment in New York City once she goes off on her own. Where does the money come from? I get the feeling Feldman has left out A LOT of information about her escape and later years in the Hasidic community.
Though it may be petty, I was also annoyed when Feldman talked about how extraordinary and remarkable she is, which was often. She probably is special, but it's still a turn off to hear someone gush about their intelligence and wit over and over again. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to other readers.
on February 18, 2014
The book is very readable but suffers from three serious flaws:
1) When you write a memoir, you make a kind of gentleman's agreement with the readers - that your memoir will stick to the truth. The book largely resolves around the fact that the writer had a non-functioning father and was abandoned by her mother when she was two, and so she was raised by her grandparents. Much of the pathos comes from this fact. When you discover upon doing some research on the internet that the author's mother left home when she (the author) was 16 - not 2, and that she had a younger sibling, and that she did not study only in Satmar schools, your faith in the author is damaged. How can you know what else is not true in the book? Some events become very troublesome. Did the writer really have to read books in secret, or was she introduced to reading in the non-Satmar schools she attended? Or, while it is hard enough to believe that her grandmother never forewarned her about the onset of menstruation, it's pretty hard to believe that her mother didn't tell her.
2) The reader naturally is curious about life in the Satman sect of Judaism. However, the writer sees everything though a glass darkly. Everything negative is highlighted or exaggerated and anything positive ignored or glossed over. For example, the author tells how every Passover night at the Seder, her grandfather would tell about his own personal salvation from the Holocaust in Europe. Did she find this moving? NO! She found it ... boring... because she had already heard his story in previous years. Later in the book, she doesn't have trouble re-reading novels she likes. Likewise, when reporting on the highlight of the year for Satmar's, watching their Rebbe dance with the Torah, she reports on how she was almost swept up into the emotion, but then stopped herself and remarked how ridiculous it is for people to get excited watching some old man dance. Ridiculous? Not if you have any understanding of the human capacity for spirituality. You can make equally reductionist remarks about any religion. (Like saying it is ridiculous for people to get excited over some baby born in some barn two thousand years ago.)
In a similar vein, pretty much every Satmar character is put in a negative light. Women who take care to look good come off as vain. Other women are mocked for being ugly (like a teacher with hairs sprouting from her chin). One teacher, who approaches her to tell her that she is there for her if ever she wants someone to talk to is not credited for having compassion - no. The writer rejects her overtures by saying she doesn't want pity.
There are moments when the book almost takes on an anti-Semitic ring. For example, when she cuts off her son's earlocks so that he will look "normal". Let me say that two of my grandsons have earlocks and they are quite normal thank you. The publisher doesn't help any. In topics for discussion added at the end of the book, one questions asks the readers to reflect on how the author's account of her visit to the Mikva reflects the hypocrisy of the Jewish religion. Excuse me!!? And I'm not even getting into the issue of a death officially ruled as suicide which she presents as a murder.
3). I found it difficult to put up with the writer's total lack of compassion for anyone else. Her first year of marriage is a great trial for her husband, because of her inability to have sexually relations. He spends one single night away from her because his family is pressuring him to leave the marriage - and although he comes back the next day and begs for forgiveness, she never forgives him. She also resents the fact that he shares their personal problems with his family - but that doesn't keep her from sharing their personal problems with the world. (She even puts his picture in the book). Even worse, she tells how she stopped going for a monthly dip in the Mikva, but lied to her husband and said that she did. For the uninitiated, this is like serving a rabbi pork to eat and telling him it is lamb, or serving hamburger to a vegetarian and telling him it is ground soybeans.
And when she is about to leave the sect, and goes to see her grandparents, who helped raise her, helped her marry, there is not a single word from her about feeling bad that she is about to tear them apart by leaving them, taking away their great-grandchild. Instead, she writes how they are no longer the same; he is no longer as sharp, she is no longer as energetic. It almost sounds as if she is saying that they are no longer any use to her. Wouldn't you think that if they are now declining, she would feel some remorse that she will not be around to help them?
As the years have gone on, I’ve noticed a growing difficulty reviewing books like this one. Every organization has people who do not fit in. This is true of religions whether they be Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Mormon, Scientologist (to name a few), quasi-religious organizations like scouting, the Klan, and street gangs (to name a few), or secular groups like corporations, news outlets, and political parties (to name a few). I’ve read books by insiders turned apostate for many of these examples and they certainly have an appeal: the insights into the workings or the organization and, of course, the gossip. But it’s rare that a book in this vein can really rise above the crowd. The reason is simple: the apostate rarely has the discipline to offer both sides of the story and both sides of the story are necessary for a fair and clear picture. Unfortunately, Ms. Feldman’s memoir does not rise above the crowd.
I have no doubt Ms. Feldman is truthful when describing her experience. To someone who is not Hasidic or familiar with their brand of Orthodox Judaism, there are certainly things about the lifestyle that will be eye-opening: the limitations of a girls’ education, the arranged marriages, the purity rituals that follow a couple into marriage, etc. However, what is also clear is that many of Ms. Feldman’s troubles also stem from things that, while perhaps acerbated by her religion, are not caused by it: a mother who abandons her, a father who is mentally challenged, difficulty in consummating her marriage.
My point is that there are many people who are satisfied by the Hasidic lifestyle, and that is something that is not acknowledged here. I would not be, but how much of that is because of the prejudices of my own upbringing? I am Catholic and have no real desire to be anything else. And even though I know there are people who have been damaged by Catholicism, I still believe it to be a force of good in the lives of most people. Individual experiences vary, for reasons that are often only loosely connected to religious background. Just so, though I sympathize with Ms. Feldman, I can’t take her experiences as the last word on the subject.
Of course, the main interest for most readers here is the “scandal”. For many, the quality of the writing is incidental; however, for me, that is also a crucial factor in my feelings about this book. In my view, the writing here rarely rises above the level of average. Her passion, particularly in the early parts of the book, when she’s relating a hurtful anecdote or reminiscing about her grandmother who raises her, is powerful and gives her prose some energy. On the other hand, her analysis and judgment of her experiences often comes across as banal. In the latter part of the book, when she has moved out of Brooklyn and is starting to plan her path to freedom, her storytelling becomes almost boring, as she seems remote both from the world she is leaving and the one she is entering.
In the end, I found the experience of reading this book to be adequate but nothing special. I applaud her need to tell her story and work through some of her personal demons. On the other hand, I found her writing only intermittently powerful enough to really draw me in.
There is an inherent problem with writing your life story at age 24; you just haven't lived long enough to have sufficient stories to tell. That's not to say the book is completely uninteresting; it managed to hold my interest to the end but not without annoying me a bit. I grasped her habit of skulking about in libraries to read forbidden texts after the first telling. Unfortunately Ms. Feldman felt the need to tell us about it again. And again. And again.
Not surprisingly -- she was just 24 as of the writing -- most of the book covers her childhood and youth. The few chapters on adult life feel rushed and incomplete. I also must agree with other reviewers that some of the material feels utterly improbable to say the least.
Don't read Unorthodox expecting great literature or a deep understanding of Hasidic life, you will be disappointed. If you want a light, fast read and a wee peek behind the curtain of a closed culture, you should be satisfied.
on February 21, 2012
I really wanted to post a review here because I read somewhere that people were accusing all the negative reviewers of being part of a "smear campaign." I don't know who they were accusing, but I'm guessing that some of the people on this site who gave short "one star" reviews may not have been accurately reviewing the book. For my part, I am not Hasidic, nor Jewish for the matter ( I was raised Mormon although my Dad's father was Jewish), so I'm not commenting with any sort of agenda.
That being said, I will start by saying that I really wanted to like this book. There was a lot of publicity way before the book came out and I was really intrigued, both by the positive and negative reviews that were generated. I really thought that this book would be a raw and honest portrayal of the internal conflict of a young person struggling to find herself in an insulated world whose core beliefs run almost contrary to those of the Western world at large. Unfortunately, there was an underlying bitterness that really made me distrust the author, and, as much as I tried to like her in the book, I just couldn't help feeling that the purpose of her book was less about sharing her internal struggles with us and more about getting back at her community. (The term that most often came to mind was "sore-loser.)" There is a certain childishness about the way she keeps shifting the root of her unhappiness to her family and community members that made me think of my own small children (ages 6 and 4), who do not have the emotional intellect yet to take full responsibility for their own actions and happiness. I couldn't help thinking that her memoir was less about inspiring people and more about taking revenge. I also find it hard to respect the fact that she turned her back completely on her family and former friends, and revealed highly sensitive information about her ex-husband and close friends. I am happily married, however I've had really horrible break-ups during my single years and I was always hesitant to reveal intimate details about my ex-boyfriends to even the closest of friends, let alone complete strangers. There are 2 sides of a story in every relationship and the fact that she discloses so much about a man who, aside from being the father of her child, was a person who also had his share of issues to put up with (it's not easy being in a relationship with someone from a broken home, especially someone who did not receive a lot of love as a child) and does not shed her in a good light. I kept trying to picture "Eli" now, having to put up with everyone knowing all about the intimate details of his past life.
I know practically zero about Orthodox Jews in general and Hasidim, specifically, besides for the fact that they are a family oriented group of people who promote modesty in dress and behavior (similar to some of my Mormon beliefs) and follow the written and oral law strictly. (However, I do have a friend in New Jersey who works with several Hasidic families (although I'm not sure which sect they belong to) who, when I asked her to draw a comparison was adamant that the people she knew, specifically the women, were nothing like the people Deborah describes. She insisted that the mothers she works with are highly educated, sophisticated women).
Because I know nothing about the facts of Hasidic life I won't even attempt to affirm or discredit some of her accounts, (although even before I read any of the exposes of that murder story that had everyone up in arms about, several glaringly obvious questions came to mind that made me more than hesitant to take the story at face-value), but I just wish that the author would have taken into account that the average intellectually honest person out there would appreciate a more two-sided portrayal. Also, she seems to skip through what I would think would be the ultimate point of her book and only briefly discusses how she actually left, so I found the title to be a bit misleading, (I thought this confirmed my suspicion that the book is less about her inner conflicts and more about her venting her anger and frustration at her community).
Would I recommend this book to friends? I already have, only because with all the talk about the book out there you really do need to read it for yourself and make your own judgements. However, I did advise close friends to be objective while reading.
on March 7, 2012
Hasidic Jews are up in arms over this book, but I don't think it is too horrible. As a graduate student of Biblical studies, a babysitter who has worked for Orthodox Jewish families, and a traveler who has spent time in Israel, I can unequivocally say that a lot of what Feldman "exposes" is information that was already available to anyone curious enough to do some light research. In fact, I was a little disappointed that a few of my (ridiculous) questions about hasidism still went unanswered after reading a Satmar Jewess's memoir such as: where on earth do they buy those seamed, odd-colored stockings? do they really walk around bald-headed/natural haired in front of their husbands or do they still cover at night? what kind of crazy infections to you get from wearing high denier tights all day, every day, even in extreme heat? - I have a lot of respect for anyone who can wear all those clothes in Israeli summer heat and still take care of a pack of children.
There are few details in the story that some people claim discredit the entire book, but in the business of reading memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies, you have to expect exaggerations and a few omissions of truth. As a thinking person, one cannot expect every single part of every single book to be 100% true. The beauty of academia is to search out your own truth by continuing to research and study, never settling for what is set in front of you. Did Feldman have a younger sister? Yes, but how does that discredit her story? As for the supposed murder, if it were my choice, I would have edited that part out since it seems to be just gossip and it really distracts from the purpose of the book.
The writing in this book is not terrible. It is written in a way that most Americans can read and glean a little knowledge, regardless of their experience in the subject or interest level in general. I compare this to Carolyn Jessop's Escape. Both are by women who escaped with their child(ren) from fairly secretive religious sects to live secular lives. Both stories contain interesting details about their religions that, again, are widely available to those who are willing to look.
Overall, though this book rambles a bit, it is worth reading.