As I was walking with my friend, who came to visit from Colorado, through the streets of Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it was almost easy to forget how much this neighborhood has changed. Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox takes us back to the not-so-long-ago era of a different side of Williamsburg, as she recounts growing up in the Satmar sect of Hasidic Jewish people. A world different from the young adult enclaves of today, it was nonetheless an enclave with its own macro and micro narratives and rules that define a community and its individual members.
The book’s title alone is controversial, if my being stopped by a Hasidic Jewish man on the subway is any testament to it. The man had asked me if I myself had any Jewish background, and asked me what it was that Deborah was criticizing in the book. I could not answer him since I had not read the book yet, but because of the defensiveness I felt was in his voice, I could only genuinely say that I didn’t know, but liked learning about people’s religious backgrounds and experiences. It was an opportunity for dialogue I wish I had been more prepared for.
Deborah’s style and voice talks about her experience growing up in this community in a very candid and yet insightful way, from her early sense of “orphanhood” because of a developmentally disabled father and mother who had left the community, to the special relationship she had with her caring grandmother. The dynamics of dealing with feeling out of place in the awkwardness of adolescence or different family relationships will allow many people to relate to this as a coming of age story. Her account of her arranged marriage and ways she felt oppressed as a woman will interest those within and/or outside of the Hasidic community that may have experienced similar oppression in other cultural contexts. For those trying to read with a curious perspective, it will also challenge our cultural assumptions about the benefits of living in an individualistic vs. collectivistic culture, and our ideas of what makes a family. I was most interested in her narrative about her arranged marriage (While it is a reality in many cultures, I found arranged marriages challenged my assumptions on the concept of romance, “marrying a spouse’s family,” and what builds a good or toxic relationship in terms of physical and emotional intimacy).
Even though the book lays out the narrative of, in Deborah’s own words, a “scandalous rejection” of her Hasidic roots, what I saw, through a social work perspective, is that she by her own admission remains very much a Jewish woman. If I were to answer the man that wanted to begin a conversation with me, I would not describe it as a book that criticizes religion. I would describe it as a book that illustrates how a person feeling restrained by the macro narrative or “restrictive superego” of her context is able to take that narrative and negotiate a new narrative (an ego narrative) by using her individual experiences of the beautiful and horrible. My only criticism is that the book seems somewhat rushed in the end and does not delve a lot into the way she has negotiated this new internal narrative, but still being a young person in her twenties, it’s likely that it’s a narrative that is still being written.
Overall, it’s a great read, and like many recent works detailing different minorities’ struggles with oppression within cultural contexts (I immediately think of Trembling Before G-d, a documentary about lesbian and gay Hasidic Jews mentioned by Deborah in her book), provides a compassionate look at how people negotiate keeping what is true within their individual cultural narratives while struggling against the oppressive parts of it.
Feldman, D. (2012). Unorthodox: the scandalous rejection of my Hasidic roots. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.
Dubowski, S. S. (Director). (2003). Trembling before G-d [Documentary]. United States: New Yorker Video. Feldman, D. (2012). Unorthodox: the scandalous rejection of my Hasidic roots. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.