Book Review: Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman

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Rating: 4 / 5

One thing that has consistently saddened me when reading stories set in past is the oppression of women.  Its one facet of my life that I am deeply appreciative of and do not take for granted.  Even as recent as my grandmother’s time, women did not enjoy the freedoms they have today, and I question how different (and worse) life would have been for me had I been born decades ago.  So imagine my surprise when I read Unorthodox.   Feldman writes vividly about her experience growing up in a Satmar community in Brooklyn.  This is unique because the community is normally closed off and unwelcome to outsiders.  Feldman’s mother had left the community, and her father was plagued with undiagnosed mental problems, so Feldman’s upbringing was the responsibility of her grandparents, with healthy doses of unwelcomed interference from her aunt Chaya. Although much of Feldman’s childhood is not a result of religion (no new clothes or the sense of being an outsider), her turbulent upbringing was probably worsened by the Hasidic culture and community.

I was shocked and appalled at her life.  As someone who constantly reads, I can’t imagine living in a community where books are shunned and an education has no value for women.  The fact that women have no sex education prior to marriage is just stunning, as is the fact that all problems with reproduction and sex are automatically considered a fault with the wife and never the husband.

It took great courage for Feldman to leave the community and start fresh on her own, and for that I applaud her.  Her memoir is eye-opening, but I felt that I needed a quick education or background of Jewish traditions to really appreciate the book.  Most of the holidays I had never heard of, and was unfamiliar with many of the Jewish phrases Feldman used throughout her memoir.  A little background of context would have gone a long way to help readers not familiar with the culture.  I think that’s what made the first part only mildly interesting.  I was totally riveted when Feldman discussed her arranged marriage (at nineteen!) and the marriage itself.  I really wished she would have either spent less time on her childhood, or gone into more detail of how she escaped.

Sure, there are questions lingering, such as how Feldman was able to leave the Hasidic community with her son, but she is young enough and will have many more experiences which will allow her to write a sequel.  I am interested in reading how she is doing now, how she’s come to terms with her family and the oppressive culture she grew up in, and if has she built a relationship with her mother.  Unorthodox was a great read, and I’m hoping that she does indeed write a follow-up so the reader can continue on the journey with her.

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