An Unorthodox Survivor’s Story

In Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, Deborah Feldman describes the first 24 years of her life living in a strict Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism outside New York City. She is raised by her paternal grandparents because her mother left the community when Deborah was a toddler, and her father has severe mental disabilities (a primary reason for her mother leaving) and is barely able to care for himself. Her childhood was dismal. “In this family, we do not hug and kiss. We do not compliment each other. Instead, we watch each other closely, ever ready to point out someone’s spiritual or physical failing. This, says (her aunt), is compassion – compassion for someone’s spiritual welfare.”

The family is suffocating, as is the Satmar community, where English is an impure language that poisons the soul. School brings no solace, because education leads to promiscuity or worse – abandonment of the community and flight from the religious leaders that control it. So educational opportunities are spare, but that’s o.k. because quality is more important than quantity. Spoiler alert – that’s a problem too. “We learn in school that God sent Hitler to punish the Jews for enlightening themselves.” They also learn that assimilation was the reason for the Holocaust. “We (Jews) try to blend in, and God punishes us for betraying him.” So the school (no less) says education is bad and assimilation is worse. It makes being homeschooled by an arthritic nun with gout look attractive.

Throughout her young life, Deborah finds refuge in prohibited books and forbidden pop music. And early on she determines that she will never feel at home in the Satmar community – where the crippling restraints on daily life and free thought bruise everyone, but they hit women and girls particularly hard. Deborah is told “[e]very time a man catches a glimpse of any part of your body that the Torah says should be covered, he is sinning. But worse, you have caused him to sin. It is you who will bear the responsibility of his sin on Judgment Day.” That’s a pretty sweet deal for men, but a rather shabby one for women – because no matter how covered up a woman is, men are sinning.

Deborah’s so-called childhood suddenly ends when she’s 17, and her marriage to a 22 year old man (she has briefly met once) is arranged. Just like her parents, Deborah and her husband are completely unprepared for marriage. Neither has a rudimentary understanding of sex. So not surprisingly, they are unable to consummate the marriage on their wedding night – or the next night – or the next night for many, many months. Their families get involved. To the shock of no one, that doesn’t help. After much counseling, the frustrated couple finally manage to have unfulfilling sex (our favorite kind), which eventually leads to Deborah getting pregnant and giving birth to a boy. But by now the marriage has unraveled and Deborah wants a divorce – provided she gets custody of her son.

The story is fascinating, but the ending is abrupt. There is little information about the divorce or how she succeeds in retaining custody – even though we are told it would be impossible for her to do so. Much like the Satmar community, the story suffers from tunnel vision. Everything is told from Deborah’s perspective. This is not bad, but it is confining. It would have been interesting to hear from other key players in the story – especially since many of them are depicted so harshly.

Overall, though, Deborah tells her story extremely well. She is intelligent and sympathetic. Even though the odds are stacked tremendously against her, she refuses to accept that she’s powerless. With her charm and persuasiveness, she believes she can convince anyone, even God, to go along with her. We don’t know about God, but she certainly won us over.

Ultimately, this is the story of a survivor whose quest for independence is entirely relatable. Deborah will not be relegated to the kitchen in a world controlled by men, including God – assuming God is a man. And God help us if that’s the case.

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor of Student Loans