Breaking Away From a Hasidic Life: Deborah Feldman’s Memoir, Unorthodox
Rules for Satmar girls: No reading English-language books. Attending college is not allowed. Always wear long skirts and thick stockings. No dating boys. Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, enter an arranged marriage. When you are a wife, shave your head and thereafter only wear wigs. Two weeks out of the month you are considered "unclean" and your husband won't touch you; submit to the mikva (ritual bath) where attendants determine if you are purified. TV, radio, and newspapers banned from the home. Welcome to the world Deborah Feldman grew up in -- until she fled her faith. Here, she chronicles her transforming journey in her candid memoir, Unorthodox.
When we first meet Deborah, she is twenty-four years old and has already left the Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism in which she was raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She traces backward, recounting her upbringing and exposing the repressive rules and expectations of her former community. Despite feelings of shame and little love from her family, Deborah had an unwavering belief that she was destined for much more than the tenets of Hasidism allowed.
Abandoned by her mother and born to a mentally disabled father, Deborah was raised by her devout grandparents in a Yiddish-speaking home. But in a community where your lineage dictates your reputation and chances in life, she would be pitied and never truly accepted. As her story unravels, we learn how Deborah was different from the other obedient girls (for example, she excelled in learning English) and felt an emptiness whereas everyone around her seemed content to follow the expected path.
Deborah was surprisingly rebellious. She began sneaking off to the library to read forbidden classics, like Pride and Prejudice and Little Women. On a forbidden radio, she tuned in to Radio Disney, and she secretly took the subway to Manhattan to see movies. And it went much deeper when she began questioning the religious ideology she was raised with, in part that suffering is God's will.
At seventeen, Deborah was married to a man she barely knew. She recounts their sexual problems -- it took them over a year to consummate the marriage -- and how she was blamed for them. Although she'd hoped for a life with her husband where she could read freely and they could break the rules together, she was sorely disappointed in his weak character. Eventually, she had a son and came up with a plan for the two of them to escape their suffocating world.
This is a captivating coming-of-age story, made all the more intriguing because of the rare look into an isolated, secretive community. It's remarkable that this sheltered young woman had the bravery and fortitude to reinvent her life from scratch. Youthful optimism helped, but it was Deborah's individuality and self-confidence that paved the way. Her happy ending, and success story, sends a message: Each of us has a past that made us who we are today, but the future is there for the taking.