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.
The Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism is as mysterious as it is intriguing to outsiders. In this arresting memoir, Deborah Feldman reveals what life is like trapped within a religious tradition that values silence and suffering over individual freedoms.
Deborah 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 fascinating look into a world that’s largely unknown and hidden. The insular Satmar Hasidic community in which Deborah was raised has no tolerance for outside influence or interference, and at the same time, leaves no room for individuality or privacy.
All aspects of life are strictly governed, from what to wear to how to speak to what to eat to when to have sex with your husband. As a child, Deborah’s world revolved around family — the grandparents who raised her, the strict aunt who dictated every step of Deborah’s upbringing and education. Even so, Deborah was different, which can be unforgiveable among the Satmar — her father was either “crazy” or “retarded”, depending on who you asked, and her mother left the Satmar world when she left her unhappy marriage, leaving young Deborah behind.
As Deborah grows, she follows the rules carefully, always fearful of the contant watchful eyes and incessant gossip in their close-knit community, yet also yearning to expand her horizons. She sneaks forbidden books from a library from a different neighborhood, hiding Harry Potter and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn under her mattress, and takes the subway into Manhattan to be dazzled by the glimpse of another kind of life.
Still, Deborah does what is expected of her, married at age 17 to a groom she barely knows, enjoying the trappings of being a bride even while the horrible reality of her situation is driven home. The chapter on Deborah’s introduction to marriage is horrifying. Prior to the wedding, Deborah takes the mandatory “bride classes” that all Satmar girls take, learning essential requirements about going to the mikveh (ritual bath), about being unclean for two weeks due to her period (and the ridiculous steps women have to take before being considered clean enough to resume marital relations), how to run a good Jewish home, and then finally, in the last lesson, what sex is and what’s expected of her.
The sex talk Deborah gets is less than informative:
A man and a woman’s bodies were created like two interlocking puzzle pieces, she says. I hear her describe a hallway with walls, leading to a little door, which open to a womb, the mekor, she calls it, “the source.” I can’t imagine where an entire system like that could be positioned. She tries to tell me about the passageway that leads to “the source,” how this passageway is entered, demonstrating with her forefinger inserted into the ring of the thumb and forefinger of her other hand, and making ridiculous thrusting motions. I’m guessing that that motion is referring to the part where they click into place. Still, I can’t see where that spot, that entryway, can exist on my own body. As far as I know, the place where the pee comes out isn’t that stretchy. I finally stop her.
“Um, I don’t have that,” I say, giggling nervously.
The girls of the community are kept so utterly ignorant of their own bodies that she has no comprehension of having a vagina! Things go from bad to worse, as the couple is unable to consummate their marriage for a full year, as clumsy fumbling leads to frustration, which leads to deep anxiety and tension on Deborah’s part, making her physically unable to relax enough to permit her husband to complete the act. It’s horrible to hear the suffering that this young girl endures, with emotional damage heaped on top of physical suffering.
Finally, after becoming a mother at age 19, Deborah begins to secretly seek an outlet for her unfulfilled yearning for independence and knowledge, enrolling in classes, learning to drive, and venturing outside of her community and its heavy expectations. The more she encounters of the outside world, the more strongly she’s convinced that her future lies elsewhere. Ultimately, she finds a way to start a new life for herself and her young son, and finds the freedom she’s longed for all her life.
The narrative is intimate and informative, as Deborah walks us through the phases of a girl’s life, from early education through puberty and into young adulthood, when the entire focus becomes making a good match. We see the structures in place to enforce obedience and strict adherence to the religious rules that govern all aspects of life. The imbalance between the sexes is laughable — a woman’s life has as its purpose creating a home for her husband and raising children. There’s no room for individuality, and people with other interests are either shunned or, like Deborah and her mother before her, must leave entirely in order to have a life that feels true.
The audiobook, narrated by Rachel Botchan, captures the dialogue and the patterns of conversations quite well, as well as conveying the Yiddish terms that are peppered throughout the book. The narration flows nicely, and gives the listener a real sense of Deborah’s inner life, moods, and emotional struggles.
While I found the story overall quite powerful, there are a few aspects that stuck out and were problems for me.
- While talking about how unhappy she is in her marriage, Deborah states that she’d never be able to leave without leaving her son behind, because the rabbinical courts would never allow a Satmar woman to leave and take a child with her. Yet in the end, Deborah and her husband decide to divorce, and Deborah leaves with their son. How? Why was she allowed to take the child? What was the legal process? Was there some sort of agreement put into place? There’s no explanation offered, and considering that she pointed this out as a reason for her feeling trapped in her marriage, I needed to get some of information about why this worked out for her.
- The author has a tendency to ascribe emotions to people based on her interactions with them, and this often rings false. When she goes to the mikveh for the first time in preparation for her wedding, she decides that the attendant “thinks she is better than I am” based on the tone of her voice, and later, when she feels embarrassed during the highly personal inspection that’s entailed, she says:
The attendant’s face is stern, but there is a faint whiff of triumph about her movements… She’s baiting me.
It all comes across as a big case of projection, as far as I can tell. Yes, the ritual is invasive and scary for a young woman who’s never been naked in front of others before and who has no knowledge of her own body, but the author presents the attendant’s feelings as facts, rather than showing that it’s her interpretation of what she sees. And this comes across in several places in the book — Deborah makes assumptions about other’s feelings and motivations, but we have no reason to think that she’s actually right.
- I would have liked more explanation about Deborah and her husband Eli’s financial situation, as she describes them struggling to afford the basics, and yet they spend an enormous amount of time (and, I assume, money) visiting doctors and therapists and other specialists regarding their sexual difficulties, and later, for prenatal treatment once the pregnancy becomes high-risk. I assume the families support the couple, but it would have been good to have a better understanding of where the money they spent came from.
Wrapping it all up:
Unorthodox is a powerful story that provides a startling look into a world that must seem utterly alien to anyone with a secular upbringing. While there are areas that could use more factual grounding and additional information, overall this book provides quite a lot of detail into what constitutes childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood in the Satmar community. It’s easy to understand how an intelligent girl who questions everything and thirsts for knowledge would feel stifled, and perhaps the most remarkable thing is that the author survived in this world for as long as she did.
Title: Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots
Author: Deborah Feldman
Narrator: Rachel Botchan
Publisher: Simon Schuster
Publication date: October 2, 2012
Length (print): 272 pages
Length (audiobook): 10 hours, 31 minutes