I didn’t have to labor through Unorthodox but my mind rebelled greatly against dropping it practically every time some example of what I perceived as backwardness reared its head. And it happened A LOT. There are so many points in the memoir that were heartbreaking. So many times when I felt claustrophobic. Many times when I cringed and hugged myself. And so many times that I thanked my lucky stars to have been born where I was. And this is coming from someone born in Soviet Ukraine with its open policy of religious and ethnic repression.
Unorthodox is the memoir of Deborah Feldman’s life and subsequent breaking away from the Satmar Hasidic community in New York. A daughter of a mentally ill father (whose specific illness is never clear) and a mother who left the community, Feldman is raised by her deeply religious grandparents, both European Holocaust survivors. The Satmar community they live in Williamsburg is a deeply Hasidic community of followers of the charismatic Rebbe of Satmar ( a Hungarian city of Satu Mare). Feldman lives the life of a typical Satmar girl: learning to cook with her grandmother and fearing to disappoint her grandfather, going to school to learn what is expected of a good Jewish woman, and dreaming about getting married and becoming independent. But her life is not enough because Feldman never feels she be song’s whether because her parents are not really around or because she simply wants more. Even as she goes through the steps expected of her in agreeing to a match with a man she barely knows, Feldman doubts what her true path should be. Instead of rooting her in her community, the failure of her marriage breaks her further away until she eventually leaves her community behind.
Feldman invited a hell of a lot criticism with her book. After if I finished reading, I decided to take a gander online to find out a bit more about Feldman. There are websites out there literally devoted to denouncing her for the lies about the community. Her parents’ divorce documents are shown, her childhood photos are touted and he friends decry that she never indicated she was unhappy and that she had dramatized her life and blackened her religion and painted them as backward monsters, fundamentalists and criminals. Is it true? Feldman only knows, and I found her story compelling and too many things about it rang too true to be lies. But take a read and judge for yourself.
These are some of the things I learned about the Satmar from Feldman’s book :
- They do not much care for the English language, spoken or written and they actually forbid the reading of all materials they perceive as secular
- Satmar women shave their heads fully unlike their Orthodox sisters. Wearing human hair wigs is also frowned upon.
- Satmar education offers bare minimum of US educational curriculum requirements. Meaning they do not even offer the equivalent of a high school diploma.
- Matchmaking for the Satmar begins in their teens and an unmarried man or woman beyond the age of 20 is considered somewhat of an embarrassment. Also, until the oldest child is married, it is not considered proper for the younger siblings to marry.
- On average, two weeks of every month Satmar women spend “unclean” and their men are forbidden from touching them. I don’t need to get graphic but let it suffice to be said, that they have to show proof of their cleanliness to a rabbi if they are not positive they are ready to be touched.
- Satmar community has zero sex education. Women are discouraged from exploring their bodies. Men apparently turn to each other to get off and very often the newly wed do not have any idea how to consummate their marriage with the least worrisome side effect being prolonged non-consummation to the most worrisome need for an ER visit.
- Abuse of all varieties is tolerated, from coping feels in the ritual mikvah (ritual cleansing bath) to child abuse.
- Satmar follow their own laws, from having their own ambulances to their own police, and don’t seem to find the need to adhere to the law of the land.
- Any Jew who is not a Satmar, is not considered a Jew. We are all gentiles if we are not Satmar, even if we simply stopped following their rules.