Friday 15 October 2021

Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman


Deborah Feldman grew up in a closed Hasidic community in New York, and was basically raised by her Jewish Orthodox grandparents after her mother left the marriage.   Deborah’s father came from a wealthy Jewish family, but he had a very low IQ and developmental problems.   His family was under great traditional pressure to marry him off, because as the oldest, he had to marry before his younger siblings could.  

Her mother grew up in Great Britain, in a poor Jewish family and didn’t have any prospects for a “good” marriage until they were approached by Deborah’s father’s family.  They married and had Deborah, but after the marriage her mother felt trapped in a loveless marriage and resentment from her in-laws, who had been so kind before the wedding, She left the marriage and had to leave Deborah behind.

Deborah was never comfortable, or felt like she was a part of the strict rigid confines of the cloistered Hasidic community where she grew up.  There were strict rules about everything, especially for females.  Her curiosity made her a secret rebel who would sneak into public libraries to get and and read English novels, something forbidden by her sect.  She had to hide the library books in her room.  

       She bought an English version of the Talmud, something women were forbidden to read, and after reading how King David, was actually a hypocrite and murderer and not the hero honored by her Hasidic sect, she began to privately question all the indoctrination and dogma she had experienced throughout all of her young life.  She recognized that the whole religion was basically set up for men; a women’s role was designed just to serve men and manufacture babies.

Her disillusionment increased when she turned 17 and was forced into an arranged marriage.  She was only able to meet her intended husband for only 30 minutes beforehand and then had to keep her head down.  The marriage thrust her into all kind of bizarre customs and traditions.  There were rules about everything.  Women had to cut off all of their hair, then wear wigs.  During their menstrual cycle they had to avoid touching their husbands and had go to a religious bathhouse to bathe and be deemed “clean” when it ended.  It seemed that every aspect of her life was closely observed.  Husbands, like her husband who studied the Talmud and were considered scholars, had sex on Fridays.

Her marriage was a disaster beginning on their Honeymoon night.  Neither she or her husband really knew what to do and she seemed to have some kind of anatomical problem, which meant weeks of doctor consultations.  After months spent correcting the problem, which was caused by stress and extreme anxiety, her first real “consummation” of the marriage resulted in her getting pregnant, which meant more doctor appointments and a frustrated husband.

She quickly got fed up with her husbands’s attitude and lost any love she had started to develop for him, especially after he put off taking her to the hospital because of a  Jewish religious day, even though she was experiencing a medical emergency.  Upon finally getting to the hospital, she was immediately given drugs to prompt the birth because of the danger she was in.  

Deborah at this point a new mother, had had enough of her religion and her marriage.  She didn’t want to accept a woman’s role as a baby machine.  She secretly took some writing classes at Sarah Lawrence College, escaped with her infant son and divorced her husband.  It was a complete break from her previous life.  She had to abandon her family and the Hasidic community where she had spent her whole life. She dumped her long dresses and wigs, and began a new life, wearing jeans, sporting her own hair, listening to music, and at the age of 22 wrote this novel.

I, like most others who have read Unorthodox, found it to be a fascinating glimpse into the fundamentalist Jewish Cult where Deborah suffered under all kinds of ridiculous and strict rules.  I have great respect for people like her who have had courage enough to think independently, and are willing to sacrifice their whole past, for their principles.

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