27. Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman
I have so much respect for Deborah Feldman. Born into the Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism in Brooklyn, New York, she left the community with her young son at the age of 24. The amount of willpower and independence that a decision like that took, for someone in her position, is truly staggering. Although I've been paying attention to some of the buzz around the book, I had no idea until reading it how unusual a person Feldman is and how grossly oppressive her life was.
As a Jew, I have considerable familiarity with the religion as a whole, somewhat less with Hasidic culture, and none whatsoever with Satmar in particular. However, Feldman skilfully orients the reader to the Satmar culture through the eyes of an eleven-year-old child. Her first person, present tense narration feels just right for the baffled reader, who may recognize familiar literary characters (Anne of Green Gables, Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice, and Francie of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), but will likely be unacquainted with the tensions between the Aroinies and Zollies (supporters of different claimants to the Satmar leadership), the talking carp that warned that Jews should "Seek forgiveness or destruction will rain down on you" in the wake of September 11th, and the various rules for a kallah (bride), which include shaving her head and checking herself internally for bleeding for seven days after a menstrual period.
Feldman, the epitome of the literary outcast, is distinguished from her peers in terms of intelligence, "inferior connections," (she is not, like the royally named Miriam- Malka, a rabbi's daughter, but instead the offspring of a mentally questionable father and deserting mother), and, most significantly an unquenchable curiosity and drive to assert her individuality. She is the Hasidic Harry Potter, defined ultimately by her choices and not the circumstances of her birth. She explicitly makes this connection when writing of the children's books that she sneaks home from the library and hides under her mattress;
"It seems to me that in the literature revolving around children, children who are strange and misunderstood like me, at some point something comes along to transform their lives, to transport them to the magic netherworld to which they truly belong...Secretly, I too am waiting to fall down a hole into Wonderland, or pass through the back of a wardrobe into Narnia." (21)
Me too, Deborah. Me too. And my own slightly misfit, introverted, nerdy childhood possessed few of the strict regulations and saintly expectations foisted on Feldman at a young age. It's no secret that Jews know their guilt (Nu?), but her family takes it to a whole new level. The insufficient kashrut (kosher label) of Hershey's chocolates is the tip of the iceberg, to someone who was repeatedly told English would "poison her soul."
While it's tempting to say that Deborah's oppressive upbringing may have been solely the result of her family and there is no need to blame the entire Satmar community or give them a bad name, that position is disingenuous. If a significant amount of the community did not collude to separate boys and girls in school, to create a culture where education and college are anathema, where nice girls don't have high school degrees and there is a hierarchy to the severity of married women's hairstyles (a scarf over a bald head > bald with a wig > a wig over a few inches of hair growth), where a matchmaker picks a spouse that your family approves and various family and community members openly dissect and criticize your sex life -it is very unlikely that a woman like Feldman would have submitted at age 17 to marry a man she had met for thirty minutes. If she had examples of other people who had gotten out (besides a fictional character like Francie, and her mother, who was essentially forbidden to see her), it's likely she would have gone to college earlier. Instead, from every direction, Feldman was bombarded with ideas and imagery that urged her to conform, that threatened her if she didn't. Deborah Fedman was born into a self-perpetuating cult, and for every amazing oddball like her who managed to escape, there are a hundred children trapped there for life, and all the hundreds of children those hundred will be culturally induced to give birth to*.
Read Unorthodox. Read it for the beautiful passages in which Feldman evokes her grandmother's kitchen. Read it for the strange insight into the psyche of her grandfather, who believes he is protecting his offspring from another Holocaust, and most importantly, keeping their souls pure. Read it for the literary allusions that Feldman weaves with such alacrity into her own life story. Read it to satisfy your prurient curiosity about what the Satmar teach their children about sex and how their repressive systems inadvertently spur devilish homosexuality. Read it because Deborah Feldman is a talented writer who deserves your patronage.
But, most of all, read Unorthodox so that you can help spread and truly understand this message:
"For those of you who shove words like sinner and heretic in my face, the ones who ask, 'How dare you?' let me just say, I dare becuase I am free. I own myself, and so I have full power to make decisions that concern me. And if you want that too, that's okay, because that's something we all deserve. Even if they tell you different."
*To be clear about my own position, I identify as a Jew and have a lot of respect for Judaism in general as a religion and culture and do not believe it is a cult. However, I believe in free will and individual choice, and I believe that all people, including children, have the right not to be abused mentally, physically, or emotionally and the right to decide whether they want to practice a religion or particular observances of that religion, especially pertaining to their personal welfare. Cults violate those rights.