Unorthodox: My Rambling Review

Unorthodox: My Rambling Review

I know I am late to the game. Everyone was reading this book last year. I generally don’t read non-fiction. Real life is hard enough without having to read the trials and tribulations of real people.

I was at the library looking for a biography to take home for the KoD to read and happened across Deborah Feldman’s book. I figured if I really hated it I would put it down in the middle, and move on. I hate not finishing books, but sometimes they need to be ignored.

There are a lot of OTD (Off the Derech – no longer religious) blogs out there that I read occasionally. Abandoning EdenUnpious, OTD to name a few – they all bring different viewpoints to the table. Some have made their peace with the world they left behind, some will spend the rest of their lives justifying the way they live their lives – to themselves and others. I can’t even begin to comment – I am still religious, and though at various different times I have contemplated throwing it all away, I stayed, because to me, the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. It’s such a personal thing though, and everyone needs to do what’s best for them.

What bothered me when I started reading Unorthodox was the disclaimer at the front of the book stating that names and identifying characteristics have been changed, “events compressed, consolidated, or reordered” basically to protect everyone she talks about. Her picture is on the flap of the back cover. Anyone who is remotely related to her or knows her will easily be able to put two and two together and figure out about whom she is writing. Either write a piece of fiction or an accurate biography.

I will say, for someone who says she had a poor secular education, the book was written better than I thought it would be. That being said, it read like a teenage memoir and not the work of a 20-something student.

I feel for her. I do. She is from an extremely dysfunctional family – so no matter how hard she tried she would never fit in with the rest of the society in which she lived. I have no personal knowledge of the Satmar community, so it is unfair for me to weigh in on the accuracy in which they have been portrayed.

The book takes us through her life from about the age of twelve – school, and puberty, engagement, marriage, birth of her son, and her eventual leaving of her community and her life as a religious female.

By the end of the book, I was feeling sorry for Feldman, even a little heartbroken. She grew up lost, and to my mind, is still lost. I read a book of facts. I wanted to read more of how she felt. Not just how liberating it was to uncover her hair, and to don a pair of jeans (BTDT – it does feel great) but how did it feel inside to know that she was walking away from everything she knew?

I was left with even more questions – does her son see his father? How do they deal with the dichotomy of their two worlds? How will she ever allow him to read this book that details the lack of consummation of her marriage and the subsequent effort it took to do the deed? Does any child ever need to read that about his parents? What’s her plan for the future? Does she have any Judaism in her life? Does she believe in God? The book ended abruptly, as if she was fed up with writing it – there needed to be a chapter or two more.

I think that she was dealt a raw hand with the parents she had (according to the way they were described in the book) and anyone, no matter to what community they belonged, would have had a hard time and be emotionally marked. Add the religious factor in – I believe it just exacerbated the issues, instead of helping to guide Feldman into finding her own path.

Since her book has been published there have been many rumours flying around – that she has a younger sister who wasn’t mentioned in the book, that her father is not mentally ill etc. Because this was a memoir and not a work of fiction I am curious to know the truth.

I wish her well – the path that she has chosen to take is not an easy one. Raising a child as a single mother is extremely tough – she has my prayers (whether they are wanted or not).

Have you read this book? What did you think?

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37 Comments

  1. “I am still religious, and though at various different times I have contemplated throwing it all away, I stayed, because to me, the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages.”

    I am still religious because I think it’s true. If I didn’t think there was a G-d or that the Torah was a human document, authored and redacted by many different people in an age before science, I wouldn’t do any of it. For me, no “advantages” outweigh living a life based on nonsense.

    What say you?

    • HaDassah says:

      OPV – sounds like spirituality is a big deal to you, as it is to me. One can be spiritual, still believe in God and His creations, but not be religious.

      And maybe I misspoke. Perhaps I should have said “inconveniences” instead of disadvantages….

      • I am the least spiritual person I know. I follow halacha only because I believe I have to. Advantages, disadvantages, inconveniences, don’t come into it. Same reason I don’t turn right on a red in Montreal or Manhattan– don’t want a whopping big ticket. I do turn right on red where it is legal. I think if I turn right on G-d’s reds, He’ll give me a whopping big ticket. So I don’t. But if I could, if there was no G-d, or I thought G-d didn’t care (and it is hard to believe he cares whether what plate my cheese sandwich sits on), I wouldn’t bother.

        So which is it? Are you observant because of belief in G-d, or is it a lifestyle preference?

        • HaDassah says:

          wow, that’s a hard question. 50/50? Does that work?

          • sheldan says:

            Works for me. :-) Seriously, this is an individual’s decision. There may be a 75/25 division in favor of belief in G-d or that same division in favor of a lifestyle preference. But now does the belief in G-d influence the lifestyle presence, or does the lifestyle presence influence the belief in G-d? Now it gets complicated.

            The precise ratio is as individual as we are. However, it seems that the description of “following halacha only because I believe I have to” seems a lot more imbalanced to me and can result in a eventual rebellion, which could result in wild pendulum swings. Maybe we all need to struggle with this.

          • I’m not sure what 50/50 means. You half-believe in the Torah? You like half the lifestyle?

            Let’s put it this way. An alien ship lands tomorrow, and the aliens announce they’re returning after a 3,000-year round trip to see how we turned out. They created us in as a great cosmic experiment, and left us a blueprint (the Torah) of how to live. They haven’t been observing, essentially they left a petrie dish of life to stew and came back to see what happened. It is 100% certain that they are behind life on earth and the Torah. They even have old draft copies.

            Experiment’s over. Are you heading to Red Lobster first chance you get?

  2. Dan says:

    She needed a better ghost writer. The glimpse into the Satmar community (and we’ll never know how accurate it since I doubt any Satmar would actually pick it up and read it) was interesting but overall the book just felt 2 dimensional. It read more like a police report than an engaging piece of prose.

  3. S.A. says:

    My father loved this book. My father reads historical topics. The fact that he highly recommended this book surprised me. Enough said.

  4. Lady Lock N Load says:

    As you know, Hadassah, my daughter is OTD and has blogged and written well received stories on Unpious. I was sad to read the things that turned her off to Judiasm but I knew that what she wrote was based on the truth.
    I am not so sure that this book “UnOrthodox” was based on the truth, from what someone told me who actually knows her.
    “Either write a piece of fiction or an accurate biography.” I have not read this book but I think it’s more of a work of fiction than a biography. That is why I have not read this book yet.
    Honesty is very important to me.

  5. Vanessa says:

    The feeling I was left with when I finished this book was that she had written it too soon. I think her journey has only just begun, and if she waited another 5 years (maybe even more) before writing it, some of her bitterness may have subsided, as she finds her place in the world. Her childhood was so full of dysfunction, that regardless of religion, she would be somehow disturbed. I’m not a fan of chasidism in general (Satmar included) for many reasons, but I’m not convinced that all described in the book is accurate – like you say, either write a memoir or write a work of fiction based on real-life stories…

  6. ana says:

    The problem with Satmar is that they treat the girls as though they are brain-damaged and handicapped by not allowing them to get a proper education (in both judaic studies and secular studies) and do not allow them to play sports, drive, develop any talents etc. Its sad that there are so many girls who are not developing in a healthy manner and that so much talent and brains are going to waste. I grew up Satmar and I will never forgive the Satmar community for hindering me from reaching my full potential. I hope that they will make necessary changes so that other girls will not go through what I did.

  7. I read enough reviews to know that I would not like the book. I didn’t use Orthodox Jewish reviewers as my way of making my decision as I knew they would staunchly defend any attacks against Judaism and its practices. If not defend Judaism, attack Ms. Feldman. Bias will be found everywhere, but I knew that I wouldn’t be getting an honest review from religious bloggers, OTD’ers or anyone involved in Judaism.

    So I turned to the secular world to see what they had to say about her book. The only thing that really made them happy was being let into the world of Chassidism.

    Aside from that, the integrity of the book was challenged within weeks, if not days, from when it was published by journalists and reviewers who took the time to do the research. As you wrote, Hadassah, “[e]ither write a piece of fiction or an accurate biography.” From what I read, she was portraying her work of fiction as an accurate biography. I would have read it had she said, as is oft stated in movies, that it was a dramatized/fictionalized story based on true events, but I won’t read a book that’s called a biography when there are easily-verifiable lies printed.

  8. Melissa says:

    I agree with your overall take, but I think there is something else which is important to reflect on.
    We both know all to well that anything we write is slanted by our own perception. So while it may not all be truth, it is (hopefully) her own personal truth based on how she internalized the experiences of her youth. That is, and should be, the basis for any memoir.

  9. Yael says:

    I, too, recently, completed this book.
    I agree that her text lacked perspective, maturity as well as serious editing. I so wished I could have read her book with those vital missing elements. She shortchanged herself as well as her readers.
    That being said Deborah most certainly has a story to tell and we can hope that future works will provide her readers texts equipped with greater personal insight and more of a true voice and message.

    • ana says:

      All of you are missing the point. She comes from Satmar where they give the girls a very basic education which would not help them too much in college or elsewhere for that matter. Are you seriously expecting that a satmar graduate should write an advanced book? Deborah needs years of education before that happens. for now, she is just writing about her experiences as she sees it. Its really not something anyone can or should criticize as her writing is simply a reflection of the place she grew up in. I don’t think any other satmar girl can do better than this–at least not without several years worth of education outside of the satmar community.

  10. Toby Galili says:

    Probably the sad thing here is that she could not communicate with her husabnd

  11. Leah in Israel says:

    HaDassah: I’m so happy to have read your wonderful review!! The only rambling was in “UnOrthodox”. I also just picked up the book.. also always late to the game! I have to say.. I’m angry. First of all.. its horribly written.. as you say, more like a teenager, than someone in their 20′s. Her editor’s couldn’t have assisted with the writing style? I also agree with you, that she seems lost, still. I have watched a couple of interviews she gave, one on “The View” and she describes menstruation and mikvah as if it belongs to the Satmar community! I was very offended. And I’m not an FFB!! We are baale teshuvah and I think the Mikveh ritual and family purity are a beautiful thing. Hashem knows what He is doing, for sure.. I got pregnant on Mikvah night with my 3rd child after a miscarriage! I haven ‘t finished the book, although I intend to. I feel very sorry for her that she had such a bad experience with Judaism. But it seems that she is very ignorant and immature. I also wish her well, but hope she can find someone to guide her back to our beautiful religion and what can be beautiful rituals.

    • ana says:

      Perhaps you should go to a satmar mikvah, oh wait, you’ll have to shave your damn hair before you do so! another thing, you say your BT, so you presumably got an excellent education prior to becoming frum. You are a lucky person that your got an excellent education and was then able to CHOOSE your own path in life. You werent forced to do things that you didnt want to do i.e. shaving your head so I suggest you first walk a mile in Deborah’s shoes, SURVIVE IT, then and only then will you be able to make an objective critique on her book.
      So lets see–in order to walk a mile in her shoes, you need to do the following:
      1-shave your head
      2-if you have a car, you need to give it away since girls are not allowed to drive in the satmar community
      3-If you have any college degrees, then you need to get rid of it since Satmar girls are not allowed to go to college.
      4-Since you have to give up your degrees, you also have to give up your job (if you have any) since you probably needed a degree to obtain said job. Dont worry, Satmar girls can be secretaries or teachers, I am sure you will enjoy doing that.
      Ok, so once you’ve completed all of this, then report back to me and let me know how it all worked out for you..

  12. Leah in Israel says:

    Ana: I don’t need your permission to state my personal critique of this book. i also don’t need to report back to you! you seem very bitter. I am seeing it how I see it.. not how you see it. she could have also “chosen” to leave the SatMar’s but still be a religious Jew. i don’t need to walk a mile in her shoes to understand.

    • ana says:

      you’re right, you dont need my permission to do whatever you want. you are anyways viewed as a goy in the eyes of my satmar community (even if they wont tell you that to your face) so your input has no value here.

      p.s. anyone who says they understand what its like to grow up satmar, when they themselves didnt grow up there, is just showing how ignorant and clueless they are about the satmar community. there is no need to discuss this any further esp since you “know” what its like.

      • HaDassah says:

        Ana, your tone is very bitter. I understand that you have a point that you wish to make, but you are taking an attitude that isn’t helpful.

        • Mark says:

          I’ve noticed that many who have left Satmar (or other similar groups) appear to be bitter. At least the ones who are vocal afterward appear to be so. I wonder if there have been any psychological studies of this possible fact?

          • ana says:

            is there something wrong with being angry or bitter when you learn that you have been lied to and deceived your entire life??? These kids are capable of doing so much more than just being wives and mothers but they are not allowed to develop any skills or talents that will enable them to be anything more than a wife and mother :(
            anyone who grew up in that community and is not angry or bitter about it should really be evaluated by a psychologist because they are most likely not in touch with their own feelings (which is very common when someone has been oppressed/repressed for years–you just get used to it so you dont do anything about it–its called learned helplessness.)

        • ana says:

          Thanks. I AM bitter. And tired of hearing people who are ignorant and clueless about the satmar community, critique a woman who has survived that kind of lifestyle. its not a community for anyone to grow up in and i can tell you that it has scarred Deborah for life.
          for a bal teshuva (or any other outsider for that matter) to say that she could have “chosen a different community just so that she remain religious” is despicable at best.
          yes, its hard for people to hear the truth about satmar but that is not a reason to bash Deborah as the frum community has done. They need to take responsibility for their actions and start making the necessary changes (educate the kids properly and allow the kids to develop in a healthy mannerby incorporating sports, theater, drivers-ed etc) so that other children dont go through what Deborah did. Enough is enough.

          • I’m not sure how or why theater will do anything to assist Satmar girls in any way, aside from being exposed to a culture that’s exactly the opposite of Satmar’s.

            I agree that I’d like to see them a bit more open-minded about what a woman’s role is, but I’d like to see a lot of changes in every sect of Orthodox Judaism.

            Deborah didn’t help anyone with her book; all she did do was air some dirty laundry.

            I understand that, as you’re someone who’s on Deborah’s side, you’re bothered by the “bashing” that went on. But 1) anyone attacked will attack back and 2) there were enough doubts about the truth of what she wrote that it calls the entire book into question.

            Forgive the analogy, but this sounds like “terrorism” to attain a goal. By attacking Satmar, her hope was that they have no choice but to fold over to demands made on them and change. That’s not the way to effect change. Change, if and when, it comes, will be from an internal source, not a (rightfully) embittered woman from the outside.

  13. ana says:

    @lost and found– Theater is composed of many different roles/aspects. There is playwriting, acting, dancing, singing, producing, lighting design, costume design, set design, sewing costumes, building sets, directing, etc. You also learn how to work with people who are different than you, you build self-esteem, and develop skills/talents that may just be sitting dormant in these girls as they have no real mode of expressing themselves. Each girl can try out different things and see what they are good at. with so many girls, I am sure you can have some sort of competitive theatre as well and who knows what kind of talents that will bring out in these girls. For now, I just wonder why hashem even bothered giving these girls talent if they are not allowed to use it.. btw, I have the same question about their brains–why does hashem bother giving them brains when they are not really allowed to use it? what a waste of smart people, it is mamesh a chaval.

    As for your second point, I did read the book and did not feel like she attacked anyone in it. I felt that she wrote her perspective on her life so I couldnt figure out why anyone would object to it (most people bashed her before the book even came out which meant that they didnt even read the book yet, so how would they know if she wrote anything negative about them??)
    Having said that, I will say that I read the book and have to admit that I was jealous that her aunt made her study and do well in school–I dont know anyone who was as lucky as she was, most satmar parents dont care if their child(ren) do well in school or not, they just care if the child is well behaved which is what matters most anyway. I found very positive things about this book and about her family including her grandparents who seem like very sweet caring people. It didnt come across as terrorism at all and I wonder if the satmar community did not make a huge mistake by bashing her before reading the actual book (esp since they are so big on dan lechaf zechus).

    Change can come from the inside but what happens if people on the inside are terrorized to the point where they have to keep silent regardless of what they do or dont want? in that case, they need people on the outside to help them achieve the change they want otherwise it just wont work. Why do you have a hard time accepting help from outsiders who are willing to do anything to bring about the necessary changes??

    • Having read through the thread, I am going to try to explain the “bashers” to you, ana. You went through what Deborah went through, and thus her emotions are your emotions. Having lived through it, you instinctively know the truth of what she says, and the emotions driving her. Therefore, to you, it might as well be a documentary, not an autobiography. To you, the truth is evident.

      I have not read the book, but the criticisms I am hearing is that she is speaking from a raw, emotional, place, and people get the feeling that, in order to make readers more sympathetic to her story, she is not telling the whole truth. But when people think they’ve been lied to, they lose trust, and they see Deborah as immature instead of wounded. You will always win more people to your side with neutral facts than emotion– even if the emotion is genuine.

      For an amazing example of drawing out the emotion and sympathy of the reader without bitterness or anger on the part of the writer, read Angela’s Ashes. And note that Frank McCourt wrote it in his 60s, when he could reflect back on his childhood with maturity and perspective.

      As for her lack of education resulting in a poorly written book, the poor writing only further detracts from her argument. I don’t think anyone is judging her as a person as much as they are judging the way she told her story. If her story was worthy of publication, her publisher did her a disservice by not providing a better editor. I believe you 100% that no one who wasn’t raised Satmar can truly understand the scars she has been left with, and as a therapist-in-training and non-Chassidic semi-observant Jew, I have tremendous problems with the limitations “black hatters” of all denominations put on their children. It’s not just Satmar that’s suffering, believe me.

      May both of you find a path that brings peace to your soul and joy to your life.

      • ana says:

        You dont need to explain the bashers to me, if you’re studying psychology then you know that its all about homeostasis or maintaining equilibrium.

        And as a “therapist-in-training” it concerns me that you would defend the bashers without reading the book itself to see if there is any validity to what they (the bashers) are saying. Is this what you plan on doing with your clients? Meaning, if a client comes in would you not listen to their story before listening to what anyone else has to say about said client?? i.e. if a divorced woman comes in for therapy then would first listen to what her ex has to say about her before you even hear what your client has to say? And then decide that the ex is right so you would not end up listening to your client herself?? the same thing could be said in Deborah’s case– why would you listen to what the community has to say about Deborah without first listening to what Deborah is saying? Maybe Deborah is not bashing the community but is simply wanting to tell her story– does she not deserve to be heard? Is this how you would treat your clients? If so, then perhaps becoming a therapist is not the ideal job for you..

        • Deborah Feldman is not a client– she is an author. I am not offering therapy; I am sure Ms Feldman has a therapist already. I am explaining why her argument, which I neither validate nor dismiss, did not achieve her aim. I was not commenting on her as a person or the book, but simply on the reaction to it. The comment was my takeaway, not of the book, but to the reactions to the book, which seem quite uniform. I am sorry you took my comment as a personal attack, or a further attack on Ms Feldman, which was not my intent. In fact, I think I acknowledge I don’t doubt that Ms Feldman has endured heartache and suffering. My only point is that facts and logic wins more arguments than emotions, even when the emotions are genuine and justified.

          Have a good Shabbos.

          • ana says:

            I really dont appreciate it when people put words into my mouth–if you re-read what I wrote carefully you will see that I did not say that you are Deborah’s therapist. whether she is in therapy or not is irrelevant. I simply used your position as a therapist (or therapist in training) as a metaphor to make a point which apparently went over your head. Thus, there is no use in discussing this further with you–at least not until you actually read the book to see if the reactions (of the jewish community) towards the book was/is justified before you defend it.

  14. Abe Kohen says:

    It appears to me that most people attacking Ana or Deborah have no appreciation for what Satmar is. Satmar is to Judaism what Reverend Jim Jones (of Jonestown) was to Christianity. I grew up in Williamsburg and studied in Wien(er), but my first summer in America (Hungarian refugee) was spent in Satmar Yeshiva. What a bummer that summer was. Nowadays when I am invited to a wedding in Williamsburg I stroll through the old neighborhood and listen to what is said in Yiddish, as most people don’t think that this shygetz would understand. Had Deborah been raised Jewish, rather than Satmar, we probably would not have a book. And Ana would not be angry.

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