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.