Deborah Feldman's memoir, Unorthodox, is a delicately painted portrait of her world, her questions and her struggle. Contrary to what others have said, the writing is even-handed and her portrayal of the Hasidic world is fair and accurate. Interestingly, her articles, interviews and comments online have come across as far more bitter than the actual memoir is. Her memoir paints a portrait while those articles express feelings; I believe this is what accounts for the difference.
This memoir is highly evocative and extremely well-written. Deborah's portraits of her Zeidy, Bubby, Aunt Chaya and friend Mindy are painted particularly well. It is easy to imagine the wealthy patriarch who refuses to spend money, the hard-working woman who finds solace and pleasure in her cooking and feeding of others, the cold, aloof, emotionally frigid woman who rules Deborah's life and the girl who was her confidante and fellow rebel but who ended up fitting into the system in the end. The cast of characters is not composed of stereotypes or archetypes but real people, with strengths and weaknesses that express themselves over the course of the story.
Deborah has a way of turning a phrase or giving salient details that paint an immediate picture in the reader's mind. This paragraph, for example, stood out to me:
- Perhaps in an adult, eccentricity is more easily forgiven. But who can explain an adult who hoards cake for months, until the smell of mold is unbearable? Who can explain the row of bottles in the refrigerator, each containing the pink liquid antibiotics that children take, that my father insists on imbibing every day for some invisible illness that no doctor can detect? (Feldman 10)
Deborah's mother was one of the women who participated in the film 'Trembling Before God.' She either left or was deliberately made to leave the community for being a lesbian. However, Deborah was never told this- she was only told that her mother had left, and when pressed, that she had had a nervous breakdown. In another section, Deborah addresses mental illness in the following way:
- My father wasn't the first misfortune to befall our family, and he wasn't the last. Only recently my uncle Shulem's son went insane at the age of seventeen. Baruch's nervous collapse hit Zeidy especially hard. He had been the prodigy of his family; his rabbis and teachers praised him for his outstanding Talmudic genius. By the time Baruch was diagnosed with acute paranoid schizophrenia, he had lost the ability to form coherent sentences, speaking in a strange language no one could comprehend. Zeidy kept him locked up in a room in his office for months, slipping trays of food that Bubby had prepared through a little slot in the door. He didn't want to release him, fearing the damage that could be done to our family if we had another raving lunatic roaming around Williamsburg. One night Baruch got out somehow, smashing through the door with his fists, emerging with bloody gashes on his arms. His screams were guttural; they burst endlessly out of his throat like those of a wild animal in pain. He destroyed everything he could get his hands on. They had to wrestle him down in the hallway, the paramedics, and sedate him. I watched from the upstairs landing, tears streaming down my face.
Later, when Bubby finished cleaning up the mess he had left, she sat white-faced at the kitchen table. I heard her whispering into the phone as I folded dish towels. He had defecated everywhere, leaving neat piles of stool on the carpet. My heart hurt for Bubby, who had never thought it was a good idea to keep Baruch locked up downstairs but had acquiesced like she did every time Zeidy made a unilateral decision.
Still, I understood why Zeidy had acted the way he did; in our community it was unheard of to place a mentally ill person in an institution. How could we trust an asylum run by gentiles to care for a Hasidic Jew and meet his needs? Even the insane are not exempt from the laws and customs of Judaism. In a way, Zeidy was brave to undertake the care of Baruch's soul, even though he was ill equipped to deal with the effects of his psychosis. (Feldman 41-42)
When a literary agent informs Deborah that she is nothing like she expected, Deborah is "secretly overjoyed to hear her confirmation, to know that I blend in here, that I look just like everyone else. To think, on the Upper East Side, I finally know what it feels like to not stand out in the way I always have" (Feldman 240).
Later, Deborah writes:
- I'm wearing jeans and a V-neck, and my hair is long and straight and snakes around my shoulder to dangle like a thick, dark ribbon down my side. I must look just like everyone else here. Finally, the blessed feeling of anonymity, of belonging; are they not the same? Can anyone see past my nonchalant poise to the nervous joy underneath? (Feldman 241)
While Deborah realizes by the end of her work that she can keep aspects of her past with her, and even be proud of them, I think this deep-rooted wish to conform and not to stand out is one of the lingering negative aspects of her upbringing. It seems to me that Deborah still has more steps to take and strides to make in reclaiming her individuality - so that she can be different from her society but not totally in step with American secular society, either.