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Monday, March 5, 2012


A review by SkepticalYid (guest post)

There has been significant controversy generated about Deborah Feldman’s memoir: UnOrthodox. Rather then focusing primarily on the various issues raised by the Satmar community, I’d like to discuss Feldman’s missive as well as the editorial style of her new book.

As an initial disclosure, the readers deserve to be aware that Deborah and I did exchange several emails about 8 months ago regarding a prospective video project she was considering. There was no fiduciary relationship between us. Since that time, we’ve had no contact.

Since I grew up with close ties to several Hassidic communities, including Satmar, much of what Feldman wrote came as no surprise to me. She provides a huge amount of detail relating the plethora of customs, superstitions and religious practices that govern Satmar life on a daily basis.

It’s interesting to note that Feldman provides this background as part of the stream of consciousness that compromises this work. Each fact is revealed to the reader in its appropriate time as her life’s story unfolds. In a sense, she allows us to learn about Satmar life and religious practice as if we were a part of that world. From the earliest chapters, we begin to quickly understand what it is to be kosher, to keep the Sabbath and to be cloistered from the surrounding world.

As Feldman matures, we are introduced to an ever increasing volume of restrictions and practices. It’s impossible to fully explain the rationale behind Satmar practices in a 252 page memoir. An endeavor of that magnitude could easily encompass a number of anthropological or sociological treatises. Consequently, her obvious effort to make the reader comfortable in the terminology and dialogue of her world is commendable.

She also invites us into her memories, feelings and perceptions. In many respects I found that to be the most revelatory part of her story. Feldman is brutally honest about the how significantly her upbringing deviated from the norm in her community. She relates the impact this had on her both in the immediate experience and in the long term.

Some have criticized her for not providing a broader based view of the positive aspects of Satmar life. I tend to disagree with that assessment. We can see through her eyes how conflicted she becomes. She longs to fit into the community like her friends and family , while struggling to maintain her individuality as well.

Since Feldman was raised by her grandparents, both Holocaust survivors, she was very much a 2nd generation child. In and of itself this is sufficient to set her apart from her peer group in many respects. Children of the 2nd generation tend to have many of the same psychological issues as their parents (or in her case, grandparents). They are prone to anxiety, depression, alienation from their peer group and are often suspicious towards authorities.

When this is coupled with the fact that she was the child of an absent mother who left the community and a mentally disabled father, she was put at a tremendous disadvantage in her world. Satmar Hassidim place tremendous importance on family status, particularly as it relates to job opportunity and marriage prospects. Consequently, Feldman was marginalized to some degree and treated as if she were a lower caste woman.

Her struggle to find her personal identity and to retain it in the face of an unrelenting pressure to conform is engrossing. It’s probable that almost everyone has faced it at some time in their life. However it’s rare to come across someone in our world who has faced such tremendous disadvantages in that respect.

My primary qualms about Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots are the style and editing of the book. A lot of information is vague and deserves more explanation. In a recent posting on her website, www.deborahfeldman.com, she explains that the book’s chronology begins at age eleven. That’s a very relevant point and deserved to be in the book.

Additionally there are many Yiddish and Hebrew terms used in the book that are given cursory translation and explanation. Sometimes there are none at all. A number of the online reviews of Unorthodox have suggested that the book rambles and is disorganized. I suspect that this perception arises from the lack of critical detail about these points.

Feldman has been accused of falsifying information and outright lying about a number of events. As I read the allegations against her, I checked each one directly. There is yet to be a single point raised against her that I found to be valid. In every case, it was a misreading of the text or an unjustifiable conclusion. There has also been an organized and coordinated effort within the Orthodox community to delegitimize Unorthodox and to slander Deborah.

This is hardly surprising considering the venom directed towards individuals who leave Hassidic communities quietly , much less with such public disclosure. It is also quite ironic when one considers that their objections are of a similar nature.  One Rabbi went to such extremes as to publish a critique of the author comparing her to the nazi propagandist Goebbels. To my mind, this validates Feldman’s observations and conclusions about Hassidic life. The hysteria and vituperative language that have engulfed her are exactly what one would predict from such people, based on a reading of her book.

Given the inevitability of this outcome, I was surprised and dismayed to see deficiencies in how her book was edited. Deborah related her own unique life experience. Had the editor advised her to add a bit of additional information regarding some of the events that were included as she did recently on her site, her detractors would have had much less latitude in their revisionism; and she would have retained more credibility then might otherwise be the case.

Feldman shares an interesting and distinctive story with her audience. If there is a reprinting of her book, I hope that Simon and Schuster does it justice and expands the text appropriately.


  1. I haven't read the book yet, but have been following the reviews/publicity. This is by far the most balanced and focused review I have read to date. Thank you!

  2. I would like to see all dropouts write a book.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. JP: I found that link offensive and deleted it.

  5. The truth always hurts.

    Anyway, Feldman's star seems to be falling quickly. Last week, she 7 on the New York Times bestseller list. This week, 14. I guess all the lies are making the book less marketable.

  6. I didn't say it hurt, it merely is offensive.

  7. And Feldman's fake memoir isn't offensive.

  8. You're assuming it's fake, did you read it? Does she make any generalizations about anyone that are untrue? You are.

  9. I doubt that Hella Winston (Jewish Week) and Shmaryahu Rosenberg (Failed Messiah) have much reason to call her a fake unless she clearly was.

  10. I've heard enough. It's nothing interesting.

    A young woman who lovingly cared for by the orthodox community decides that she can have better sex by leaving (probably not).

    Next she decides that she can make a bundle of money writing a blood libel about Satmar Hassidim.

    This demonstrates how dangerous and counter productive it is to attempt to "help" apostates. She was writing her "Hasidic Feminist" I think four years ago. Someone should have been monitoring her computer use then and kicked her out of the community immediately. It would probably have been better.

  11. JP: You are entitled to your opinion. And my readers are entitled a good laugh as well :)

  12. I'll get plenty of laughs while your all in hell. lol!

    1. Richard Dawkins reads some hate mail:


  13. i'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints, the sinners are much more fun

    oh, if there was only such thing as a "sin"....bu alas....there is not

  14. Sure. Your such a coward you can't even reveal your name. Your going to great when faced with God's anger.

  15. "A young woman who lovingly cared for by the orthodox community decides that she can have better sex by leaving (probably not)."

    Well, in fact there seem to be quite a few parallels to your own biography: You were raised by loving adoptive or foster parents in a determined religion, yet you decided to reject the tradition they so lovingly transmitted to you. If I am not mistaken you speak quite poorly about them and their religion...

    So what's so shocking to you about all this?

    Actually, I do not mind that part of your life. You might have had your reasons, and what your parents thought was loving might have seem less loving to you.

    I just think that you are a terrible embarrassment to orthodox judaism, especially with your constant mention of sex!

  16. Actually, if you'll notice, I don't believe I make any negative comments anywhere on blog about my adopted family. Contrast that with Feldman - she seems to say almost nothing else.

  17. Yea, "god"gets angry when you dont use your real name on the internet,....this JP dude is hilarious!!!

    He should be a standup comic

  18. JP: do you read your own blog?

    "jewish philosopher said...

    While we're on the topic of my adopted parents, you may want to ask them about my adopted brother, and only other adopted sibling, Doug. He has never held a job since, soon after I left home, thanks to their abuse, he began suffering from sever schizophrenia. Those were quite some model parents.
    Tuesday, July 26, 2011 6:08:00 PM "

    from this blog entry: http://www.torahphilosophy.com/2011/07/counter-atheism-activity.html

  19. How many comments do I write every day for the past six years? I don't even remember that one.

    Without even making things up, I have a lot more to complain about than Feldman, however I don't believe anything will be accomplished by that.

  20. thanks for the review. i am now up to 149 on the waiting list at the local library here in rockland county. MANY want to read this book. i started in position 202 about a month or so ago. i work with some off the derech people as well as religious. let everyone have their say. we all have a right to disagree without casting personal aspersions on the folks with whom we disagree...this is america folks!

  21. I would suggest that if you enjoy antisemetic propaganda, read Mein Kampf. It's free on the web - no waiting or paying. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is great too.

  22. It fascinates me that so many people obsess on those who depart Chassidishe life, and nobody seems to notice the numbers of people who depart secular life to join in Haredi practice. This omission alone says more about the odd nature of human focus & perception and their desire for a structure which fulfills their personality than any diatribe for or against any particular sect or community. While the author rails against restriction, she joins a community which imposes a different set of restrictions, albeit not nearly as carefully defined nor as rigidly enforced. Human societies all are constrained by norms, declarative or subtle.

    Then look at those flocking to Islam for a broader example of this concept of flight to formality. And in secular society, look at all the social repercussions of wearing the wrong clothes, saying the wrong thing, working at the wrong job, attending the wrong school, etc. for examples of the more subtle constraints of the "open" society. Human nature is much more complex than this narrative would have you believe.