“Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots” by 25-year-old Deborah Feldman (Simon & Schuster: $23.00) is painfully good. Through a narrative voice that is almost hypnotic, she puts you immediately in the center of her chaotic world. Flashes of adult wisdom seem almost to compete with her childlike sense of bafflement, and we watch this young author struggle fearlessly to find herself on the page. She is unlike so many other authors who have left Orthodoxy and written about it; her heart is not hardened by hatred, and her spirit is wounded but intact. She is in search of a better life, and this fine book chronicles her departure from the Satmar Hasidic sect in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Feldman’s paternal grandparents raised her after her mother abandoned her and their religious community shortly after her birth. Her father, beset by serious mental illness, was unable to care for her. Feldman always felt herself a misfit among the Hasidim. She was disturbed by the blatant misogyny and repression that surrounded her. But unlike her mother two decades earlier, she would not leave Williamsburg without her small son, the result of a disastrous arranged marriage. Feldman explains “I drove away from my marriage, and my religion, for good on the eve of my 23rd birthday, with nothing but my son and some garbage bags filled with clothes. I changed my phone number and address and didn’t tell anyone where I was. To the people whose blood is the same as mine I am very much likely lost forever.”
Feldman clung to high hopes for her son’s happiness. She writes “Had my son stayed in the Hasidic community he would have been attending Hebrew school every day from nine to five, and he would very likely have grown up into one of those young men thrown into the real world without even a high school diploma to help him succeed. Such deprivation in this age of opportunity is unthinkable to me. My son might grow up to be an astronaut or a vet. It’s his choice. If he’d like to be a Talmud scholar, that’s fine too. But he’ll have the opportunity to go to college if he likes, and we read books about hungry caterpillars without feeling a shred of guilt.”
Feldman’s literary artistry is exquisitely demonstrated by her ability to describe the toxic duplicity that permeates certain Orthodox circles, where an almost paranoid competitiveness surfaces among community members as to who is the most “frum.” Parents are overly self-conscious about their children’s behavior and brutally strict in enforcing the rules in fear of other parents’ condemnation. Feldman describes this twisted mindset as follows: “All my aunts and uncles are hard on their children, it seems to me; they berate them, embarrass them, and yell at them. This is chinuch, child-rearing according to the Torah. It is the parent’s spiritual responsibility that their children grow up to be God fearing, law abiding Jews. Therefore, any discipline is all right as long as it is for that purpose.” Although young and inexperienced, Feldman can see clearly the damage this does, and she feels more and more isolated from those around her. She comes close to the brink of severe emotional despair.
Her unhappiness began very early. Beginning in her teen years, Feldman is frustrated and bored at school, irritated and humiliated by an aunt who seems to take malicious pleasure in her every misstep, and finding what little sanctuary she can in the public library, reading secular books that are banned at home.
Feldman seems to know that her life will have to be elsewhere, but how and when and what form will it take? Leaving her grandmother will prove particularly difficult. She speaks warmly about her, about the time they spent together, mostly in the kitchen, where her Bubby seemed to always be cooking and plating heaps of food swathed in butter and prodding her to eat. Feldman remembers feeling safe in the kitchen, as if the actual walls protected her from any harm. But her grandmother, although well-intentioned, was unable to love her in the way she needed to be loved. Feldman sees this early on and tries to rationalize her disappointment and immense hunger for maternal love. She writes, “I think it’s because her whole family was murdered in the concentration camps, and she no longer has the energy to connect emotionally with people.” But Feldman wants to, she just needs to find her way out.
Feldman is moved to tears by a rare candid story her grandmother tells her one day, about her own mother, Chana Rachel, and their life back in Budapest—before the war, before the annihilation. Chana Rachel had already lost four children to a diphtheria epidemic before giving birth Feldman’s grandmother. When Bubby also got sick, as a little girl, her mother, Chana Rachel, in a fit of maternal rage and grief, shoved her fist down Bubby’s tiny throat to break the skin-like growth that was blocking her airway. Bubby survived and is convinced it was her mother’s prayers to God that saved her, but Feldman finds a different message in this story. She is convinced that Chana Rachel took life into her own hands, and instead of waiting for God, determined her own destiny and saved her child’s life. Feldman begins to fantasize about how she, too, can save herself and her little boy, thinking, “The idea of being fearless instead of passive thrills me.”
But it isn’t easy. Guilt, shame and loneliness persist. The secular world is confusing, and she still feels somehow that a part of her is still Hasidic. She feels Jewish in her heart and mind, but confused as to what that will now mean for her. The seductions of the secular world entice her, and she admits to being awkward with men, particularly when they gaze directly upon her. Her awkward tango continues, but she has found her vocation. She is a sensitive and talented writer.
Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Journal and other publications.