Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of 'Unorthodox.'

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 book tackles incredibly tough issues, ranging from the status of women within the Hasidic world to mental health, mental illness, abuse of power (in the specific case mentioned, by a mikvah lady who enjoys embarrassing young kallot), molestation and attempted rape, sexual dysfunction and the search for selfhood. Much of her narrative focuses on her wanting to feel control over her own destiny and ownership of herself. When she begins to wear clothing like jeans or smokes her first cigarette, this is a way for her to reclaim her ability to make decisions for herself- and to feel like she owns her body.

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)
Something I found odd but interesting was that despite her claim to want individuality, at the end of the day, what Deborah really wanted was to conform to something else. She wasn't very good at conforming to the world she was born into, but she expresses deep relief and happiness at being able to conform to secular America.

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)
To me, this desire to conform is sad. Despite everything she writes about being an individualist, in the end of the day, all that Deborah wants is a society to which she feels she can conform, unlike the society in which she was raised.

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.


Anonymous said...

This is a great review. Cuts right to the heart of the matter. Thank you for making us aware of this book.

Anonymous said...

To focus on something so as to be the opposite or the equal of that something is to conform to that something. This is the trap we fall into when considering individuality. Individuality is not rejection of or acquiescence to society, culture, etc.
Someone can be an individual and still uphold all the values of a given group. It just depends on how they came to those values.
If I am asked to change my values/actions/ideas and the deciding factor is based solely on what the group thinks, then I am not an individual.

I think the easiest way to be an individual is to not let fear decide for you and to think as little as possible about whether I'm being an individual or not.


Charlie Hall said...

"To me, this desire to conform is sad. Despite everything she writes about being an individualist, in the end of the day, all that Deborah wants is a society to which she feels she can conform, unlike the society in which she was raised."

That is a really insightful comment.

For me, the halachic system is a set of limits, not a method of enforcing conformity. Limits that allow one to maintain sanity and serenity in an often insane and non-serene world. Unfortunately, in practice, much of the Orthodox world now is full of people who are looking for simple answers where there are none, looking for certainty where there is a lot of uncertainty, looking for a false sense of security through stricter and stricter ritual observance.

The only security is in HaShem. HaShem gave us boundaries we are not to cross, but encouraged us to explore within those boundaries. For just about every concern or question I've had about a Torah issue, I've found some sage of the past or present who either had the same concern or answered the question in a way that makes sense. Those opinions may be out of favor today, but I figure that if I'm thinking the way Rashi or Rambam thought about an issue, I can't be too far off.

With patience, and the willingness and opportunity to learn, one can discover this and remain a part of the Orthodox community. I certainly am nonconformist in many, many respects but it I'm still here, going to minyanim and shiurim, keeping shabat and kashrut. I can identify with the frustration but I can say honestly that it is NOT necessary to leave!

Shades of Grey said...

I may have to actually check out this book now...

frum single female said...

thanks for the review. i had pre-ordered unorthodox on my kinlde, but i haven't started reading it yet.a lot of times the PR for books tend to make things seem more controversial than they really are. i kind of thought as much about this book. or at least i was willing to actually read it first before condeming the author. im glad you confirmed my hunch. i look forward to reading this book.

Jewish Atheist said...

When she begins to wear clothing like jeans or smokes her first cigarette, this is a way for her to reclaim her ability to make decisions for herself- and to feel like she owns her body.

I love how you put that. Was this your insight or is it in the book?

Dana said...

You have a gift Chana

Anonymous said...

I read the book last night (pre-ordered it from B&N), and I agree, it was not as "bad" as I thought it would be, based on the PR buzz. No, she doesn't sugarcoat things, but she doesn't paint every thing as dark as people are saying she did.

Anonymous said...

That story with the guy killing his son is not only unsubstantiated, but also completely untrue according to someone who knows the family personally.

See Baal Devarim, here:

Anonymous said...

Makes me doubt the "Uncle Shulem" story too.

Velvel Belkin said...

First of all I really enjoyed your rather original review of this book.
But I would like to take issue with your individuality point. Comforming to Liberal Secular Western democracatic culture , contains individuality , because it is so wide and free. Yes it has its rules and norms , but they aren't rigid , which hence allows individuality.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the book but watched her on "The View" and read the interview in the NY Post.Im sorry to hear that she felt like an animal being a Niddah but its not a hassidic thing not being able to be with hubby during Nidah days its what the Torah calls for.

Lets see how accurate she is on non-halacha things:

DF said on "The View" that Satmar girls graduating high school with a 4th-grade reading level.True for men but not for girls. No one is saying Satmar girls receive a college secular education but that's a long stretch to 4th grade.If this is not a blatant lie i don't know what is.
She also said that she didn't consummate right after her wedding and it became gossip in the community becuase gossip is what the community is all about.If she didn't notice the gals on "The View" ignored the last statement.Plus,i doubt that the community gossiped or knew about it.Perhaps his parents knew and were trying to help.
She said in the NY Post interview that she never went to a doctor and rode in front seat of a car without seat belts becuase g-o-d will protect her.Thats HER story but that's not the norm in the community as she was trying to imply.
No breast touching,sorry Deborah,but a husband must fulfill a womans needs and that includes touching.Its your personal story and has nothing to do with being hassidic.
One day she claims that she can go and walk in wiilimasburg becuase no one recognizes her another day she claims that she cant walk there because everyone knows her.
The list is too long to point out her obvious lies

Anonymous said...

It is said, on most occasions, that when anyone is scorned by their surroundings they inevitably find solace in other places. The one thing that is interesting, and should be understood, is that Deborah new only what she saw, and how she was treated, this was her reality. She, unlike other Orthodox families, wasn't granted a healthy surrounding, nor did she, as it seems, have any type of love and understanding, and yearned to be understood and cherished. Her way of dealing with it, was, and is, "protect myself at ALL costs", even if her experiences are different from the Communities as all whole. This is what she, herself, experienced, and never really had a chance at seeing anything positive. Abused and "locked up", is not a way to "protect" religious children from the "REAL" world, but understanding, compassion, and explanations, to those who are in need of it, is not just important, but should be the tools to help everyone, struggling with who they are. If you push someone into a corner, and force them to do as you say, and, adhere to all the rules and restrictions, instead of sitting down and helping mold them into who THEY want to be, then there is no chance for a healthy outcome. I myself, having been brought up in the 70's and early 80's, had the exact opposite upbringing. My father, who divorced my mother when I was 7, decided to go back to his "roots", remarried and moved to a beautiful Jewish out of town community, where as my mother, who was on a path to destruction, and wasn't the motherly type, moved to the bad side of town, with no stability whatsoever. I saw things that no child should be subjected to, at such a young age. But, in the long run, I was embraced by the Frum community, who was constantly looking out for my good, and because I felt a connection and love that I didn't have in my mother's world, this is the path I chose, and desired. My life with my father was, in the end, stability, and the other world, as I witnessed, was very abusive and very scary. Again, when a child isn't given a chance, and is ignored because of their differences, and curiosity, they should be shown MORE understanding and love, instead of being ostracized, and punished. Deborah's reactions and decisions , in my opinion, is a result of ignorance, in the worst sense. Her family, and other families who do the same to their children, should be ashamed of themselves, and if anyone reading this thinks that by shoving their children, who are different, under the rug, should think twice about it. I've noticed that the more strict and the more you tell someone NO, over and over again, with no explanations, instead of having an appreciation for Hashem and what he gives us, and instills an understanding to why we do things, the more rebellious the children become. We are not robots, and a curios child is not wrong, he/she just wants to understand the world around them, and why they are in it. Those who are angered about what Deborah wrote, should think twice about how to handle it themselves, because everything is meant to be. True are not, it should be used as a wake up call, to the Ultra-Frum in particular, (and I say them, because they are who she is really talking about, whether some of it exaggerated or not, makes no difference). If you see a young or even older child, in your midst, who seems to be struggling, be it in school or at home, and they want answers and though seem to be, going in a "different" direction than you had hoped for, reach out to them, and help them FIND themselves. I can assure you that ignoring the issues, in every sense, will not make them go away, they will only breed more and more. Then , by the time you realize it, it will be too late. Learn from others experiences and only then will it help you with your own. As an Ultra Frum Woman, I do the same with my own children, in the end, they will appreciate all that has been instilled in them, and explained to them, because after all, IT'S THEIR LIFE!

Jewish Atheist said...

Comforming to Liberal Secular Western democracatic culture , contains individuality , because it is so wide and free. Yes it has its rules and norms , but they aren't rigid , which hence allows individuality.

That is a great point. I couldn't put my finger on what's wrong with your argument about conformity at first, but this comment helped me see it. While it may be technically true that the author now conforms to American secular appearances, the two forms of conforming are as different as they can be.

Anonymous said...


I think Feldman characterized it as control over her own body. Also, I think Chana's point was that Feldman still has the same mindset in terms of wanting to fit in, not that one conformity is equal to another.


See response to the Jewish Week's article here.

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Yishai said...

I don't think conforming and wanting to feel a sense of belonging are the same thing.

There is a difference in being told what you have to do (and how you have to think) versus choosing what you would like to do and finding others who share in your lifestyle choices.

Anonymous said...

Since you linked to The Jewish Week article in your last post, I have to assume that you believe that they are a credible source. The web address provided by the anonymous commenter who posted on February 17 at 9:11 AM sends you to an article (also by TJW) which discredits the book you have reviewed. Any comments? Also, would it be possible to get your husband's take on the whole story?

Observant Observer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Observant Observer said...

I just finished reading this book a few hours ago, i enjoyed reading every sentence of your review.
Though i do feel empathy for her desire to "fit in." Even though i am very proud of my Jewish identity, i feel very self conscious when i am davening shemoneh esre in the airport, not being able to stare down the prying eyes from all around. I do feel kind of self conscious when i am obviously seen as an Observant Jew by my style of dress, and judged accordingly.
Rambam, in Yad ha Chazakah states that a Jew must always be able to be identified as a Jew.
Anyway, something else i thought of;
I wonder if Deborah, a.k.a. Devoireh felt so much resenment towards Hasidism because of her hostile, chinuch by Aunt Chaya. She was hardly ever shown nurturing love. I think these two are very much connected.

HatMan said...

Thanks Chana, was a great read. I doubt its veracity though. Heshy could probably point out the inconsistencies Based on perceived memories yet...
Hubby's family is suing the Jewish Week for libel.

Anonymous said...

Deborah Feldman responds to allegations of inconsistencies here:

frum single female said...

i just finished reading the book. i agree with your review. i don't think that the book was that bad or unfair, i just think that her circus side show in the media was over the top. i think that she got carried away.

Anonymous said...

If the jailers are loving, then the prisoners don't mind being in jail?! Deborah didn't have loving jailers and the prisoners were not happy. The grandfather/jailer didn't seem happy either. He was empowered by ingrained (almost genetic) patriarchy. That is why he was able to get away with heinous behaviour. Thank goodness at least Deborah escaped.

Plus, could it be that Deborah may have been scared of the unchecked insanity she saw??? Her father, her cousin... It is simply amazing that her grandfather, who was a holocaust survivor, locked up his own grandson...

Still, not all escape in the direction of the open world an learn to think free. Some escape into deeper acquiescence... I have seen many of both.

rochelle day smith said...

I'm not a 'reader' but your book caught my eye....i never knew arout the hasidic though I have spotted several at the minyon house where I use to take my bi-racial grandson. An odd group, can't blame you for rebelling. How's yitzy?