The UnOrthodox by Deborah Feldman
Reviewed By Marc Schulman
It has been a long time since there was a book that I read cover to cover, over a weekend, without putting down. But that was the case, last weekend, with a new book called: "UnOrthodox". It might have been the writing style that just flowed, or the wonderful window the author gave into the world of the Satmar Hasidim. My rapt interest in the book might have been my doubtlessly vain hope that there are many more members in the Hasidic world that aspire to follow in the footsteps of this author and choose to leave.
"UnOrthodox" is an autobiography of Deborah Feldman. Feldman grew up in Williamsburg, as part of the Satmar community. After being married for a few years Feldman left the community for good, with her young son. Since leaving she has been living the life of a secular Jew, while pursuing her College Degree.
Though Feldman grew up fully entrenched in the Satmar community, she was always a little different. Her mother ran away from the community when Feldman was little, having decided that a Satmar life was not for her. At that juncture, Feldman's mother seemingly also discovered she was gay. Feldman's father was never quite right. As a result, Feldman was brought up by her grandparents (Bubbie and Zaydie). Her devoted grandparents seem to have truly brought Feldman up as if she was one of their own. Feldman grew up in a loving and caring environment, full of aunts and cousins. Still, Feldman was a destined to be a rebel. From a young age, she started sneaking forbidden English books to read into her room. It was through these books that she first learned of a world beyond Williamsburg. In "UnOrthodox", Feldman gives us an excellent view into what it was like growing up and going to school as a girl in the Satmar community. The level of insularity of that community is hard to believe. The lack of knowledge amongst members of the community regarding many basic things; be they personal body functions, or any knowledge of the outside world, is almost shocking.
"UnOrthodox" provides a rare firsthand view of a society that indirectly has been influencing the Jewish world, as a whole to an increasingly greater extent over the past few years. This book left me both deeply disturbed, albeit, slightly hopeful. The disturbing message of the book is a confirmation of something I have always known. The ravine between me and the average Satmar Hasid (and probably the same for most other Hasidic groups) is larger than any gap between me and any average, educated non-Jew. Other than a shared heritage, the Satmar Hasid and I have very little in common.
On the other side, the absolute lack of knowledge of so many of the members of the Satmar community, especially the level of ignorance among their youth gives me hope. I understand the Haredi fight to keep "basic studies" out of their schools. They fear that a little knowledge might undermine the ghettos they have worked so hard to build. They have right for concern. A little knowledge is very powerful. Those of us who care about the future of Israel, and the future of the Jewish people need to battle to insure that a little light of penetrates the darkness that is their lives. That little light could change the lives of many.