Monday, April 23, 2012

Nonfiction Monday: Unorthodox

Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots Deborah Feldman

At the age of 23, Deborah Feldman took her toddler son and walked out of her life. She left her house, her husband, her extended family, and her community.

Starting in her childhood, Feldman tells of her life growing up in the Satmar Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Her mother left the Hasidic community shortly after she was born. Her father has mental issues (largely undiagnosed, completely untreated.) She's raised by her grandparents, the family charity case, never having what her cousins have, always feeling unwanted and unloved.

Feldman also spends a large time questioning the world around her, sneaking library books written by forbidden authors in Yiddish or, even more scandalously, English. She slowly becomes more and more dissatisfied with the life carved out for her, her inability to forge her own path within the confines of the community. She thinks that marriage will offer her some freedom. That getting out from under the thumb of her extended family will help. But her husband's family is even more domineering. Her ingrained shame of her body (not even the furniture should see your naked body) causes extreme complications.

But it's not a misery memoir or a tawdry expose of the Hasidic community. While there is extreme hardship and unjustness, Feldman doesn't wallow. A lot of the lack of wallow is due to the pace of the book. She tends not to dwell. Feldman also has a gift for remembering the raw, stinging emotions of childhood. Many of the events lead her to realize things shouldn't be that way, but in the writing she remembers the shame and guilt of the moment. The anger and sadness come later. Also, despite the fact she left, the Satmar Hasids are still her family and her people. She recognizes that this is where she came from, it's a large part of who she is. Even after leaving, she feels defensive and offended when people badmouth Hasids or her family.

One of things I found most fascinating was her explanations of the Hasidic community. She weaves in history, explanation of belief and culture, the difference between different Hasidic communities, even the rifts in the Satmar community over Rabbinical succession. It never overwhelms the core story, and is often seamless. While it was more than enough for me to understand the book, it left me wanting to know more about the community. I also like how she shows that even in this closed community, it's still Brooklyn. 9/11 happens. And oh! when the Hipsters start moving to Williamsburg...

While this is an adult book, there is more than enough teen appeal here. The obvious pairing is with Hush (even though Feldman describes the girls from Borough Park as being "modern"). When Hush first came out, a lot of the kidlit community questioned it-- can such isolation and ignorance of the modern world really exist today? in BROOKLYN? It was hard to wrap our heads around. Feldman's book does more than validate the truth of the lifestyle described in Hush, but explains it more, and does more than point out its flaws.

Today's Nonfiction Monday round-up is over at Books 4 Learning.

Book Provided by... my local library

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Books4Learning said...

Thanks for participating in NonFiction Monday. Sounds like a "heavy" book :) Thanks for the review.

Fats Suela from Gathering Books said...

I avoid reading heavy nonfiction books or memoirs, but sometimes I can't help it! Your thoughtful review makes me want to read this book! Thank you for sharing!