Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots

Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots

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by Deborah Feldman

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In this arresting memoir about growing up in—and ultimately escaping from—a strict Hasidic community, Deborah Feldman reveals what life is like trapped within a religious sect that values silence and suffering over individual freedoms. The Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism is as mysterious as it is intriguing to outsiders. Unorthodox shedsSee more details below


In this arresting memoir about growing up in—and ultimately escaping from—a strict Hasidic community, Deborah Feldman reveals what life is like trapped within a religious sect that values silence and suffering over individual freedoms. The Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism is as mysterious as it is intriguing to outsiders. Unorthodox sheds new light on this subculture through one woman’s harrowing tale of repression and self-discovery.

Raised in the cloistered world of Brooklyn’s Satmar Hasidim, Deborah Feldman struggled as a naturally curious child to make sense of and obey the rigid strictures that governed her daily life. From what she could read to whom she could speak with, virtually every aspect of her identity was tightly controlled. Married at age seventeen to a man she had only met for thirty minutes, and denied a traditional education—sexual or otherwise—she was unable to consummate the relationship for an entire year. Her resultant debilitating anxiety went undiagnosed and was exacerbated by the public shame of having failed to serve her husband. In exceptional prose, Feldman recalls how stolen moments reading about the empowered literary characters of Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott helped her to see an alternative way of life—one she knew she had to seize when, at the age of nineteen, she gave birth to a son and realized that more than just her own future was at stake.

Unorthodox is a captivating odyssey through adversity and a groundbreaking look into Orthodox Jewish culture.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Born into the insular and exclusionary Hasidic community of Satmar in Brooklyn to a mentally disabled father and a mother who fled the sect, Feldman, as she recounts in this nicely written memoir, seemed doomed to be an outsider from the start. Raised by devout grandparents who forbade her to read in English, the ever-curious child craved books outside the synagogue teaching. Feldman’s spark of rebellion started with sneaking off to the library and hiding paperback novels under her bed. Her boldest childhood revolution: she buys an English translation of the Talmud, which would otherwise be kept from her, so that she might understand the prayers and stories that are the fabric of her existence. At 17, hoping to be free of the scrutiny and gossip of her circle, she enters into an arranged marriage with a man she meets once before the wedding. Instead, having received no sex education from a culture that promotes procreation and repression simultaneously, she and her husband are unable to consummate the relationship for a year. The absence of a sex life and failure to produce a child dominate her life, with her family and in-laws supplying constant pressure. She starts to experience panic attacks and the stirrings of her final break with being Hasidic. It’s when she finally does get pregnant and wants something more for her child that the full force of her uprising takes hold and she plots her escape. Feldman, who now attends Sarah Lawrence College, offers this engaging and at times gripping insight into Brooklyn’s Hasidic community. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
One of O magazine's "10 Titles to Pick Up Now"

“Deborah Feldman was raised in an insular, oppressive world where she was taught that, as a woman, she wasn’t capable of independent thought. But she found the pluck and determination needed to make the break from that world and has written a brave, riveting account of her journey. Unorthodox is harrowing, yet triumphant.”—Jeannette Walls, #1 bestselling author of The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses

“[Feldman’s] matter-of-fact style masks some penetrating insights.”—The New York Times

“An unprecedented view into a Hasidic community that few outsiders ever experience. . . . Unorthodox reminds us that there are religious communities in the United States that restrict young women to marriage and motherhood. These women are expected to be obedient to their community and religion, without question or complaint, no matter the price.”Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Riveting . . . extraordinary.”—Marie Claire

“Eloquent, appealing, and just emotional enough . . . No doubt girls all over Brooklyn are buying this book, hiding it under their mattresses, reading it after lights out—and contemplating, perhaps for the first time, their own escape.”—

“Deborah Feldman has stripped the cloak off the insular Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism, offering outsiders a rare glimpse into the ultraconservative world in which she was raised.”Globe and Mail (Toronto)

“Compulsively readable, Unorthodox relates a unique coming-of-age story that manages to speak personally to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider in her own life. Feldman bravely lays her soul bare, unflinchingly sharing intimate thoughts and ideas unthinkable within the deeply religious existence of the Satmars. . . . Teens will devour this candid, detailed memoir of an insular way of life so unlike that of the surrounding society.”—School Library Journal

“[Feldman’s] no-holds-barred memoir bookstores on February 14th. And it’s not exactly a Valentine to the insular world of shtreimels, sheitels and shtiebels. Instead, [Unorthodox] describes an oppressive community in which secular education is minimal, outsiders are feared and disdained, English-language books are forbidden, mental illness is left untreated, abuse and other crimes go unreported . . . a surprisingly moving, well-written and vivid coming-of-age tale.”The Jewish Week

“Imagine Frank McCourt as a Jewish virgin, and you've got Unorthodox in a nutshell . . . a sensitive and memorable coming-of-age story.”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“[Deborah Feldman's] is an extraordinary story of struggle and dream. . . . Both her escape and her decision to tell her story are magnificent acts of courage.”—Anouk Markovits, author of I Am Forbidden

“Unorthodox is a fascinating book . . . Feldman’s voice resonates throughout.”The Jewish Daily Forward

“Denied every kind of nourishment except the doughy, shimmering plates of food obsessively produced by her Holocaust-survivor grandmother . . . books nourish [Feldman’s] spirit and put in her hands the liberatory power of storytelling. As she becomes a reader and then a writer, Feldman reinvents herself as a human being.”Newsday (New York)

Unorthodoz is painfully good. . . .Unlike so many other authors who have left Orthodoxy and written about it, [Feldman’s] heart is not hardened by hatred, and her spirit is wounded but intact. . . . She is a sensitive and talented writer.”—

Unorthodox is consistently engaging. And the very fact of it is touching. For years . . . [Feldman] examined library shelves, marveling that there were so many men and women who believed in their ‘innate right . . . to speak their mind in whatever way they saw fit.’ That she has joined their ranks is remarkable indeed.”—

“Feldman gives us special insight into a closed and repressive world. . . . Her memoir is fresh and tart and utterly absorbing.”Library Journal

“Nicely written . . . [An] engaging and at times gripping insight into Brooklyn's Hasidic community.”Publishers Weekly

“A remarkable tale.”Kirkus Reviews

“Feldman’s evolution as well as her look inside a closed community make for fascinating reading … her storyteller’s sense and a keen eye for details give readers a you-are-there sense of what it is like to be different when everyone else is the same.”Booklist

Library Journal
It's hard to imagine life in any strict religious community, and the Satmar Hasidim seem particularly remote from the experiences of many Americans. Raised in a Satmar Hasidim community in Brooklyn, Feldman gives us special insight into a closed and repressive world. Abandoned by her mother and married off at 17 to a man she had known for less than an hour, Feldman started taking classes at Sarah Lawrence College and soon determined that she had to leave the community, together with her young son. At first glance, her memoir is fresh and tart and quite absorbing.
Kirkus Reviews
A young woman's coming-of-age and escape from a sect of Hasidic Judaism. In her debut memoir, Feldman recounts the many struggles endured while growing up within a particularly orthodox branch of Hasidic Judaism. The daughter of mentally unstable parents, the author was raised by her Hasidic grandparents, whose allegiance to their religious and cultural traditions often proved problematic for the young Feldman. Cloistered from the secular world, the author's pinhole-sized view of New York kept her at a continual disadvantage, providing a singular narrative for understanding the world beyond her neighborhood. As she matured, Feldman became more aware of the inner turmoil "brewing madly between my own thoughts and the teachings I was absorbing." As she continued to question her faith, she soon recognized the tyrannical aspects of the traditions, the culmination of which led to an arranged marriage for her and another young Hasid, Eli. Despite the sect's blessing, the marriage soon faltered, primarily due to sexual problems spurred by an utter lack of knowledge by both partners. The Hasidic community's uncompromising insularity rendered the young couple woefully unprepared for their relationship, as well as the parental responsibilities that followed soon after. After Eli continued to place his strict observance of Judaic tradition above the health of his pregnant wife, Feldman acknowledged her own unimportance in their relationship. Having endured her second-class citizenship long enough, she took her child and fled to the outside world, basking in her newfound liberty. It was a bold move, but Feldman doesn't fully capture the significance of her departure. A remarkable tale told somewhat unremarkably.

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Product Details

Simon & Schuster
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6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt


  • On the eve of my twenty-fourth birthday I interview my mother. We meet at a vegetarian restaurant in Manhattan, one that announces itself as organic and farm-fresh, and despite my recent penchant for all things pork and shellfish, I am looking forward to the simplicity the meal promises. The waiter who serves us is conspicuously gentile-looking, with scruffy blond hair and big blue eyes. He treats us like royalty because we are on the Upper East Side and are prepared to shell out a hundred bucks for a lunch consisting largely of vegetables. I think it is ironic that he doesn’t know that the two of us are outsiders, that he automatically takes our existence for granted. I never thought this day would come.

    Before we met, I told my mother that I had some questions for her. Although we’ve spent more time together over the past year than we did in all my teenage years put together, thus far I’ve mostly avoided talking about the past. Perhaps I did not want to know. Maybe I didn’t want to find out that whatever information had been fed to me about my mother was wrong, or maybe I didn’t want to accept that it was right. Still, publishing my life story calls for scrupulous honesty, and not just my own.

    A year ago to this date I left the Hasidic community for good. I am twenty-four and I still have my whole life ahead of me. My son’s future is chock-full of possibilities. I feel as if I have made it to the starting line of a race just in time to hear the gun go off. Looking at my mother, I understand that there might be similarities between us, but the differences are more glaringly obvious. She was older when she left, and she didn’t take me with her. Her journey speaks more of a struggle for security than happiness. Our dreams hover above us like clouds, and mine seem bigger and fluffier than her wispy strip of cirrus high in a winter sky.

    As far back as I can remember, I have always wanted everything from life, everything it can possibly give me. This desire separates me from people who are willing to settle for less. I cannot even comprehend how people’s desires can be small, their ambitions narrow and limited, when the possibilities are so endless. I do not know my mother well enough to understand her dreams; for all I know, they seem big and important to her, and I want to respect that. Surely, for all our differences, there is that thread of common ground, that choice we both made for the better.

    My mother was born and raised in a German Jewish community in England. While her family was religious, they were not Hasidic. A child of divorce, she describes her young self as troubled, awkward, and unhappy. Her chances of marrying, let alone marrying well, were slim, she tells me. The waiter puts a plate of polenta fries and some black beans in front of her, and she shoves her fork in a fry.

    When the choice of marrying my father came along, it seemed like a dream, she says between bites. His family was wealthy, and they were desperate to marry him off. He had siblings waiting for him to get engaged so that they could start their own lives. He was twenty-four, unthinkably old for a good Jewish boy, too old to be single. The older they get, the less likely they are to be married off. Rachel, my mother, was my father’s last shot.

    Everyone in my mother’s life was thrilled for her, she remembers. She would get to go to America! They were offering a beautiful, brand-new apartment, fully furnished. They offered to pay for everything. She would receive beautiful clothes and jewelry. There were many sisters-in-law who were excited to become her friends.

    “So they were nice to you?” I ask, referring to my aunts and uncles, who, I remember, mostly looked down on me for reasons I could never fully grasp.

    “In the beginning, yes,” she says. “I was the new toy from England, you know. The thin, pretty girl with the funny accent.”

    She saved them all, the younger ones. They were spared the fate of getting older in their singlehood. In the beginning, they were grateful to see their brother married off.

    “I made him into a mensch,” my mother tells me. “I made sure he always looked neat. He couldn’t take care of himself, but I did. I made him look better; they didn’t have to be so ashamed of him anymore.”

    Shame is all I can recall of my feelings for my father. When I knew him, he was always shabby and dirty, and his behavior was childlike and inappropriate.

    “What do you think of my father now?” I ask. “What do you think is wrong with him?”

    “Oh, I don’t know. Delusional, I suppose. Mentally ill.”

    “Really? You think it’s all that? You don’t think he was just plain mentally retarded?”

    “Well, he saw a psychiatrist once after we were married, and the psychiatrist told me he was pretty sure your father had some sort of personality disorder, but there was no way to tell, because your father refused to cooperate with further testing and never went back for treatment.”

    “Well, I don’t know,” I say thoughtfully. “Aunt Chaya told me once that he was diagnosed as a child, with retardation. She said his IQ was sixty-six. There’s not much you can do about that.”

    “They didn’t even try, though,” my mother insists. “They could have gotten him some treatment.”

    I nod. “So in the beginning, they were nice to you. But what happened after?” I remember my aunts talking about my mother behind her back, saying hateful things.

    “Well, after the fuss calmed down, they started to ignore me. They would do things and leave me out of it. They looked down on me because I was from a poor family, and they had all married money and come from money and they lived different lives. Your father couldn’t earn any money, and neither could I, so your grandfather supported us. But he was stingy, counting out the bare minimum for groceries. He was very smart, your zeide, but he didn’t understand people. He was out of touch with reality.”

    I still feel a little sting when someone says something bad about my family, as if I have to defend them.

    “Your bubbe, on the other hand, she had respect for me, I could tell. No one ever listened to her, and certainly she was more intelligent and open-minded than anyone gave her credit for.”

    “Oh, I agree with that!” I’m thrilled to find we have some common ground, one family member whom we both see the same way. “She was like that to me too; she respected me even when everyone else thought I was just troublesome.”

    “Yes, well . . . she had no power, though.”


    So in the end she had nothing to cling to, my mother. No husband, no family, no home. In college, she would exist, would have purpose, direction. You leave when there’s nothing left to stay for; you go where you can be useful, where people accept you.

    The waiter comes to the table holding a chocolate brownie with a candle stuck in it. “Happy birthday to you . . . ,” he sings softly, meeting my eyes for a second. I look down, feeling my cheeks redden.

    “Blow out the candle,” my mother urges, taking out her camera. I want to laugh. I bet the waiter thinks that I’m just like every other birthday girl going out with her mom, and that we do this every year. Would anyone guess that my mother missed most of my birthdays growing up? How can she be so quick to jump back into things? Does it feel natural to her? It certainly doesn’t feel that way to me.

    After both of us have devoured the brownie, she pauses and wipes her mouth. She says that she wanted to take me with her, but she couldn’t. She had no money. My father’s family threatened to make her life miserable if she tried to take me away. Chaya, the oldest aunt, was the worst, she says. “I would visit you and she would treat me like garbage, like I wasn’t your mother, had never given birth to you. Who gave her the right, when she wasn’t even blood?” Chaya married the family’s oldest son and immediately took control of everything, my mother recalls. She always had to be the boss, arranging everything, asserting her opinions everywhere.

    And when my mother left my father for good, Chaya took control of me too. She decided that I would live with my grandparents, that I would go to Satmar school, that I would marry a good Satmar boy from a religious family. It was Chaya who, in the end, taught me to take control of my own life, to become iron-fisted like she was, and not let anyone else force me to be unhappy.

    It was Chaya who convinced Zeidy to talk to the matchmaker, I learned, even though I had only just turned seventeen. In essence, she was my matchmaker; she was the one who decided to whom I was to be married. I’d like to hold her responsible for everything I went through as a result, but I am too wise for that. I know the way of our world, and the way people get swept along in the powerful current of our age-old traditions.

    August 2010

    New York City

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