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.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Cult of Personality & Female Abusers

As the issue of emotional abuse by a particular rabbi has been tackled by The Jewish Week, different thoughts have been running through my mind. The two most frequent: 1) We have created a cult of personality that leads to people in positions of power taking advantage of our children. 2) Every article or book currently out in the Orthodox world addresses the issue of male (usually rabbinic) abuse. Why have the female abusers not been mentioned?

With regard to the cult of personality, I think this is part and parcel with the points made in Dr. Hayyim Soloveichik's 'Rupture and Reconstruction.' He talks about our preference for texts and textual sources post-Holocaust. Well, post-Holocaust our veneration for those who are intimately versed in those texts has also grown. In order to rejuvenate Jewry, different strategies came into place. One of these was the creation of informal education youth groups such as NCSY and the other was the creation of the post-high school gap year at a yeshiva or seminary in Israel.

Everyone knows about the potential for the power wielded by the charismatic kiruv rebbe to be abused (see Baruch Lanner). But though we joke about the seminary/ yeshiva flip out reactions, until this article in The Jewish Week, I don't think people viewed the fact that we relinquish our students into the care of people we don't know in Israel as problematic. I have personally always felt distaste for this system and the amount of (disturbing) power wielded by these seminary rabbis and morahs. I have seen students at Stern who would call these people to discuss relationships, engagements and dates and who had these people veto or advocate for prospective suitors. I think the fact that students have created a culture of giving their brain over to these morahs/ rabbis is really disturbing. There are some decisions you really ought to have autonomy over and your seminary rabbi who you had a crush on has no business interfering.

Books that have explored the year in Israel phenomenon say that often the students grow because they feel like they are finally experiencing authentic Judaism. They meet people who can serve as their role models. And yet these same role models sometimes advocate for the children to stay a second year in Israel against their parents' wishes, give up their college aspirations, go to kollel rather than work a job etc. I do not think disturbing peace between family members and students should be the role of a rabbi. A rabbi and a guide needs to be a responsible person. You need to use texts responsibly, teach responsibly and meddle in family politics (if you feel it's your place to meddle) responsibly. Fervent zealotry has its place, but that place is not working with impressionable teenagers.

Aside from the issue of the cult of personality that we have fostered within Judaism, there is the issue of who exactly we are reaming out as abusers. I am glad that we are speaking openly about the flaws within the system, but not once (not once!) have I read an article talking about a woman who is abusive. Now, it's possible that most women within our community aren't slapping the teenage girls under their care, but they come up with more insidious ways to abuse them. The worst is what I call religious abuse. They use religion as an abuse textbook. They say things like, "Sweetie, I'm just worried about your neshama. You used to be so tznius. What happened? Is it those friends of yours? I just feel like you're slipping. I'm always available to help, you know, if you want to talk to me." The school that I went to included a teacher who was totally unsuitable. She was verbally abusive to me and others. Why is it that she and people like her get a free pass? Why are we focusing specifically on the men? There are women who have ruined the lives of many Bais Yaakov girls. When will we comment on the impact that they are having, the fact that they rip their students' self-esteem to shreds and pit them against each other for their approval?

Saturday, February 04, 2012


Heshy: Do you know what aquifers are? I'm learning the laws of aquifers.

Chana: Yes.

Heshy: If the surface tract is on their land, they can use the water.

Chana: My heart goes out to all men obsessed with aquifers.

Heshy: It should. They lead miserable lives.


(Chana takes pizza out of oven)

Heshy: Oh, baby.

Chana: You make strange noises.

Heshy: (smiles) Is this a general rule?