Unortho­dox: The Scan­dalous Rejec­tion of My Hasidic Roots

Deb­o­rah Feldman

By – April 27, 2012

Unortho­dox is a mem­oir by Deb­o­rah Feld­man, a for­mer mem­ber of the Sat­mar com­mu­ni­ty in Brook­lyn. Feld­man describes the deeply reli­gious envi­ron­ment in which she grew up, closed off from the rest of soci­ety and kept from any type of sec­u­lar edu­ca­tion and upbring­ing. Raised by her grand­par­ents after being aban­doned by her moth­er (who leaves Sat­mar and is no longer reli­gious) and her men­tal­ly unsta­ble father, Feld­man attends Sat­mar schools, where only Yid­dish is spo­ken and read­ing books in Eng­lish is for­bid­den. She writes about her secret trips to the pub­lic library, hid­ing books under her mat­tress and hop­ing her grand­fa­ther doesn’t find out. She describes her regret for lack­ing the enlight­en­ment” felt by the oth­er girls in her school and com­mu­ni­ty, and her strug­gles from a young age with the feel­ing that this life isn’t for her. She is mar­ried off at sev­en­teen to a man she meets once, and that’s when her rebel­lion begins. She learns to dri­ve, grows out her once-shaved hair and attends Sarah Lawrence Col­lege. After a car acci­dent almost kills her, Feld­man real­izes what is most impor­tant to her. She leaves her hus­band, takes her son, and starts a new life with­out the wigs, heavy clothes, and reli­gious restrictions.

In gen­er­al I have issues with authors who self-pro­claim their sto­ries as scan­dalous.” In the Sat­mar world, what Feld­man did was scan­dalous, but her sto­ry did­n’t pro­vide the dra­ma and intrigue it seemed to have promised. How­ev­er, it does pro­vide a win­dow into a world not many of us know about or can fath­om. Her sto­ry, slow at first, invites us into the homes and mind­sets of the Sat­mar peo­ple, at times whole­some and warm and at oth­ers lone­ly, shock­ing, and dis­turb­ing. Feld­man is reflec­tive, nev­er minc­ing words, say­ing exact­ly how she feels about every­thing. For a woman with lit­tle for­mal sec­u­lar edu­ca­tion, her writ­ing is elo­quent and stirring. 

Libi is a first-time mom liv­ing in New Jer­sey. She works in fundrais­ing and events at Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty and is pur­su­ing a master’s degree in Marketing.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Simon & Schuster

1. The hero­ines in the books Deb­o­rah read as a girl were her first inspi­ra­tions, the first to make her con­sid­er her own poten­tial out­side of her com­mu­ni­ty. Which lit­er­ary char­ac­ters have inspired you?

2. As a girl, with two absen­tee par­ents and an out­spo­ken nature, Deb­o­rah was sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly made to feel dif­fer­ent or bad.” How did the struc­ture of Sat­mar Hasidic cul­ture make her feel such shame, and how did this shame serve to sub­ju­gate her?

3. When Deo­brah learns that King David — a saint­ed his­tor­i­cal fig­ure who sup­pos­ed­ly did no wrong — is a mur­der­er and a hyp­ocrite, she writes, I am not aware at this moment that I have lost my inno­cence. I will real­ize it many years lat­er.” What is the line between inno­cence and will­ful igno­rance? How did Deborah’s abil­i­ty and will­ing­ness to ques­tion author­i­ty and think for her­self change the course of her life?

4. The clois­tered Sat­mar com­mu­ni­ty is locat­ed on the out­skirts of New York City, one of the most racial­ly, spir­i­tu­al­ly and cul­tur­al­ly diverse places in Amer­i­ca. How do aspects of the out­side world enter Deborah’s con­scious­ness, and how do you think these glimpses of life out­side her insu­lar com­mu­ni­ty impact­ed her development?

5. Deb­o­rah writes of the var­i­ous ways she was restrict­ed and con­strained by her reli­gion, but her grand­par­ents found solace in the strict Hasidic com­mu­ni­ty after the Holo­caust. Were there any pos­i­tive aspects of her tight­ly knit sect? 

6. How was Deborah’s life affect­ed by gos­sip and the fear of scruti­ny from her friends and neigh­bors? How have oth­er people’s judg­ments and crit­i­cisms affect­ed your own life?

7. How much were Deborah’s Bub­by and her aunts respon­si­ble for the unhap­pi­ness in her life? How much free will did they have, giv­en their cul­tur­al restrictions?

8. When it is time for Deb­o­rah to find a hus­band, her ordi­nar­i­ly stingy Zei­dy starts spend­ing mon­ey. How does this ram­pant mate­ri­al­ism con­flict with the community’s val­ues of mod­esty and sim­plic­i­ty? How does this kind of mate­ri­al­ism dif­fer from and how is it sim­i­lar to mate­ri­al­ism in sec­u­lar life?

9. Dis­cuss your reac­tion to the fact that Deborah’s moth­er fled the com­mu­ni­ty. How dif­fer­ent do you think Deborah’s life would have been if her moth­er had not left?

10. Even though her mar­riage is arranged and she has very lit­tle say in the mat­ter, Deb­o­rah orig­i­nal­ly views her impend­ing nup­tials as an oppor­tu­ni­ty for free­dom. Was she naïve? Did her mar­riage with Eli con­strain her even more than she already was?

11. Deborah’s descrip­tion of going to the mik­vah is one of the most har­row­ing of the book. How did her expe­ri­ence at the rit­u­al baths expose the most glar­ing hypocrisies of her religion?

12. How did Deborah’s respon­si­bil­i­ties shift when her son was born? What do you think ulti­mate­ly led her to sum­mon the courage to leave her community?

13. Deb­o­rah writes about the abus­es that are allowed to run ram­pant in the Sat­mar com­mu­ni­ty — from her own father’s untreat­ed men­tal ill­ness to pedophil­ia and even mur­der. From Deborah’s account of life in the Sat­mar Hasidic reli­gion, do you think the com­mu­ni­ty will ever be able to change or be reformed?

Enhance your Book Club

Cour­tesy of Simon & Schuster

1. Food was a major aspect of Deborah’s fam­i­ly and reli­gious life. Try out some recipes for Yid­dish del­i­ca­cies, like egg kichel or bab­ka, and share with your book club.
2. Deborah’s love of pop music was a shame­ful secret when she was grow­ing up. Plan a group out­ing to a karaoke bar and belt out your favorite guilty pleasures.
3. James, Deborah’s pro­fes­sor at Sarah Lawrence, sug­gests that she read some Yid­dish poet­ry that has been trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish. Have each mem­ber of your book group find a poem that was orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in Yid­dish and recite it to the group (try: Pearls of Yid­dish Poet­ry or Songs to a Moon­struck Lady). Is there any­thing about the poem that reflects a par­tic­u­lar cul­tur­al point of view or gives a hint of the Yid­dish tem­pera­ment or sense of humor?