Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Availability : pre-order on Amazon Available February 2012
This book opened my eyes to a world drastically unlike my own. The Jewish Orthodox is not only a faith, it is a whole community of people who have separated themselves from mainstream American by transforming their dress, their language and even sometimes their values. I have held strong fascination with this community. I’ve walked through their neighborhoods on my way to yoga, where groups of young girls in their long skirts and button-up tops and flat shoes, scurry across the street to get away from my gentile tattoos and the Eastern philosophy sticking out of my bag. The men I pass will look down at their feet and whisper in Yiddish, even though I search their faces for a friendly smile. In Los Angeles they all drive fleets of mini-vans and own gigantic houses that are lit up in the evening with families and food, while the little ones zip up and down the sidewalks on their scooters, brushing the little curls out of their eyes.
To be so close to something and know that I was not a part of it drove me to want to know more and to want to know why I’m such an outsider in my own neighborhood.
Unorthodox is a look into that world. Deborah Feldman and I are the same age. She grew up in the Satmar community of Williamsburg, in Brooklyn New York. The Satmar’s are one of the most devout of all the Orthodox groups. If I really wanted to know what my life, as a girl who has always wanted to know everything and see the world, would be like growing up in Williamsburg, I think Deborah nailed it.
Deborah creates her world with some of the most beautiful language I’ve read from a first time author. Frankly I’m jealous of her talent. She so seamlessly made her family loveable and loath-able. You know they are only being who they are, but at the same time they are still human with the same negative human qualities we all have, like envy. She has a wonderful way of maintaining this voice of naivety, even though as I read, I can tell she knows a lot more then most other’s, even at a young age. Her ambition and struggle with her identity in this oppressive world is astounding and powerful. The more I learned about her the more I felt she had to leave in order to be happy. But I don’t leave this book with feelings of hatred or even anger at the Satmar’s. It ‘s actually quite the contrary. I loved the ritual and the beauty of it all. I didn’t have anything like that in my non-denominational, agnostic at thirteen, upbringing. It was clear that there were plenty of people who belonged in that community, but Deborah was certainly not one of them.
From the title we know that she eventually leaves the Orthodox community. In the prologue, she’s eating in a restaurant with her mother, who is also a former Satmar. We learn her that when her mother left the community she did not take Deborah with her. Her father, having a mental illness not accepted or treated medically in the community, has no choice but pass her off to her grandparents, Bubby and Zeidy.
Her childhood memories of baking with her grandmother in the kitchen, is when I really go into the story. I personally have always found myself gagging when I think of over-zealous religious-types, but she immediately let me know that I would be dealing with real people, when I met Bubby. I feel in love at first read. She was sweet and wise. She had so much compassion from the very beginning and you could tell she had over-pouring amounts of love for Deborah. Her Zeidy on the other hand was everything you’d picture an old, post-war, bitter orthodox to be, strict, pious, and un-forgiving. But in some moments you can tell that he has love hidden under that big grey beard.
Young Deborah is already off to a bad start. She likes to read books written in English and must hide them from other people. She is not like the other girls in school. Even at this young age she knows the world is bigger and thus begins her struggle; be happy or be a good girl.
I personally enjoyed learning about all of the holidays and rituals that go along with the religion, but I couldn’t shake the great lines that divide the sexes and the harsh guidelines in which the women must abide. Yes its fun to cook, I love to cook. I will cook all day. I’m not talking about domestic issues. But there are certain occasions where the women weren’t allowed to be in the same room as the men. There are religious texts only the men are allowed to read. This seems unfair to me in a community centered on religion.
Another prominent duty that shed light on my own personal ignorance was the practice of shaving bride’s heads. I had no idea they did that. All the married Satmar women around Deborah have shaved heads. They cover them with wigs and scarves. Deborah creates an air of humor that surrounds the wig culture they have formed for themselves. She also has some of the same thoughts I had while reading her impressions. There is a kind of silliness she conveys of the competitive nature of the wigs, the blonde versus brown, real versus synthetic. The women in Deborah’s neighborhood spend ridiculous amounts of money on wigs, to cover their shaved heads, fascinating.
Deborah’s coming into womanhood as a Satmar is a beautiful and tedious ritual. There are baths and blessings. And in some cases the beginnings of molestation. It was clear from what I know, and what Deborah was being taught, that she was going to be in the dark about sex. It was like giving a monkey a gun and a target and saying, “You figure it out.” Her guided preparation for marriage and procreation was more focused on the procedures of the ceremony then the part she’d actually be living.
So it’s no surprise when her arranged marriage begins to have an unreasonable amount of problems. They are practically children when they are wed and Deborah must do everything she can to keep her sanity. Her desperation becomes heartbreaking yet she remains so strong despite all the feelings of failure. The two familes not very forgiving when it comes to things in nature going wrong, like mental illness or infertility. They label the couple as being punished by god instead of helping them. Which of course only makes it worse.
We also know from the description of the Author and the prologue that she does conceive and have a boy. This creates a whole new set of problems. As in most parts of the world, the moment you have a baby all the women in your family want to tell you how to raise it. To much relief, Deborah and her new little family move to another, less strict, community in upstate New York. In all this time we know Deborah she has not given up her love for knowledge and reading secular books. Hiding them from her family all these years, she can now relax a little. But the more she learns about the world and about her orthodox world, the more she wants out.
I highly recommend this book to all young women who need a good perspective on just how good they had it growing up in their suburban homes with mini-skirts, New Kids on the Block and Tampax. Going to college was not a struggle that could blacklist you from your own culture, it was a given right. Getting married is a long horrid process of bar hopping and one-night-stands, not a meeting in front of family members and then an engagement where you don’t even see one another. I have such an appreciation for my ability to run my own life. I have great respect for Deborah Feldman. She left a community with nothing but a baby on her hip, went to college, and then wrote a book! How many of us can say that?
Enlighten yourself. Unorthodox has changed the way I look at orthodox Jews, or now, don’t look at them, because they’re not supposed to connect with gentiles. But more importantly it has changed the way I look at my own life.