Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman

A fascinating memoir about life in an Hasidic Jewish sect from Brooklyn, New York.  Deborah Feldman is born to an Hasidic couple who for a variety of reasons do not raise their daughter.  Instead, she is raised by her ultra conservative grandparents, and at age 17 is married to a man she has met only briefly.  Deborah tells about the orthodox rituals and rites that she must obey to be a good daughter and wife.  Throughout her life Deborah feels like she does not quite fit in and shortly after the girth of her son manages to start college and eventually gain the skills, means and courage to divorce her husband and leave the sect with her child.

For such a young writer, she astutely wrote and depicted her humiliating oppression as a girl and young woman. I raced to read to find out how she would escape her circumstances.  In the meantime, I noted lots of intriguing details like how she had to sneak books to read because they were forbidden and how sad she was when her husband forced her to throw all her books away, claiming they were the cause of their unconsummated marriage.  I will remember her description of the ritual baths women are supposed to take to purify themselves every month.  Her rendering of events was clear and unsentimental, but vivid.  All she needed to do was describe what was happening-no editorial necessary. 

The drawback to this fine fine piece was that after such a great build up to leaving her home and family, she leaves many many posed and provocative questions unanswered.  She says that she would never be allowed to leave her son, yet she is able to leave with her son.  She writes briefly of a mother that abandons her and in the prologue we know she has re-established contact with her, but we never see how her mother figures into her liberation.  We never know how her husband and family reacts when she leaves.  She escapes to a new apartment--with a bed, but we don't know how she got that.  One assumes that writing of these customs and rituals has left her permanently shunned, yet she does not mention the aftermath at all. (On her blog she writes of death threats from her grandparents.)

At the end she does spend a great deal of time discussing how much she values her freedom and how much she loves making her own decisions.  I assume that the above questions may be answered in her next book, which is due out in 2013.

Still, it is a lovely story, full of surprises and honesty and insight.  I loved it all and await the next chapter. It works well like the Jeannette Walls memoir Glass Castles.  Get it from the library or your local bookstore. There may be a wait at the library.

1 comment:

Irvine Divorce Lawyer said...

The writing in this book is not terrible. It is written in a way that most Americans can read and glean a little knowledge, regardless of their experience in the subject or interest level in general. I compare this to Carolyn Jessop's Escape. Both are by women who escaped with their child(ren) from fairly secretive religious sects to live secular lives. Both stories contain interesting details about their religions that, again, are widely available to those who are willing to look.

Overall, though this book rambles a bit, it is worth reading.