In the tradition of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel and Carolyn Jessop's Escape, Unorthodox is a captivating story about a young woman determined to live her own life at any cost.
The Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism is as mysterious as it is intriguing to outsiders. In this arresting memoir, Deborah Feldman reveals what life is like trapped within a religious tradition that values silence and suffering over individual freedoms.
The child of a mentally disabled father and a mother who abandoned the community while her daughter was still a toddler, Deborah was raised by her strictly religious grandparents, Bubby and Zeidy. Along with a rotating cast of aunts and uncles, they enforced customs with a relentless emphasis on rules that governed everything from what Deborah could wear and to whom she could speak, to what she was allowed to read. As she grew from an inquisitive little girl to an independent-minded young woman, stolen moments reading about the empowered literary characters of Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott helped her to imagine an alternative way of life. She had no idea how to seize this dream that seemed to beckon to her from the skyscrapers of Manhattan, but she was determined to find a way. The tension between Deborah's desires and her responsibilities as a good Satmar girl grew more explosive until, at the age of seventeen, she found herself trapped in a sexually and emotionally dysfunctional marriage to a man she had met for only thirty minutes before they became engaged. As a result, she experienced debilitating anxiety that was exacerbated by the public shame of having failed to immediately consummate her marriage and thus serve her husband. But it wasn't until she had a child at nineteen that Deborah realized more than just her own future was at stake, and that, regardless of the obstacles, she would have to forge a path--for herself and her son--to happiness and freedom.
I have secrets too. Maybe Bubby knows about them, but she won't say anything about mine if I don't say anything about hers. Or perhaps I have only imagined her complicity; there is a chance this agreement is only one-sided. Would Bubby tattle on me? I hide my books under the bed, and she hides hers in her lingerie, and once a year when Zeidy inspects the house for Passover, poking through our things, we hover anxiously, terrified of being found out. Zeidy even rifles through my underwear drawer. Only when I tell him that this is my private female stuff does he desist, unwilling to violate a woman's privacy, and move on to my grandmother's wardrobe. She is as defensive as I am when he rummages through her lingerie. We both know that our small stash of secular books would shock my grandfather more than a pile of chametz, the forbidden leavening, ever could. Bubby might get away with a scolding, but I would not be spared the full extent of my grandfather's wrath. When my zeide gets angry, his long white beard seems to lift up and spread around his face like a fiery flame. I wither instantly in the heat of his scorn. "Der tumeneh shprach!" he thunders at me when he overhears me speaking to my cousins in English. An impure language, Zeidy says, acts like a poison to the soul. Reading an English book is even worse; it leaves my soul vulnerable, a welcome mat put out for the devil.
Showing 1-1 of the 1 most recent reviews
1 . Not informative enough
Posted May 01, 2012 by MF , New YorkI ordered this book after seeing the author promote the book on a daytime talk show. I was very excited to read it and indeed it is well written and enjoyable. The reason I am not giving it more stars is that I was hoping to get more insight into the Hasidic culture. There were a lot of holidays mentioned and words used that were never explained and I found that aspect confusing and disappointing. I never quite understood her feelings towards her family, there seemed to be little love between them and had there been it would have made her struggle more compelling.
Simon & Schuster
February 01, 2012
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Excerpt from Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman
In Search of My Secret Power
Matilda longed for her parents to be good and loving and understanding and honourable and intelligent. The fact that they were none of those things was something she had to put up with. . . .
Being very small and very young, the only power Matilda had over anyone in her family was brainpower.
--From Matilda, by Roald Dahl
My father holds my hand as he fumbles with the keys to the warehouse. The streets are strangely empty and silent in this industrial section of Williamsburg. Above, the stars glow faintly in the night sky; nearby, occasional cars whoosh ghostlike along the expressway. I look down at my patent leather shoes tapping impatiently on the sidewalk and I bite my lip to stop the impulse. I'm grateful to be here. It's not every week that Tatty takes me with him.
One of my father's many odd jobs is turning the ovens on at Beigel's kosher bakery when Shabbos is over. Every Jewish business must cease for the duration of the Shabbos, and the law requires that a Jew be the one to set things in motion again. My father easily qualifies for a job with such simple requirements. The gentile laborers are already working when he gets there, preparing the dough, shaping it into rolls and loaves, and when my father walks through the vast warehouse flipping the switches, a humming and whirring sound starts up and builds momentum as we move through the cavernous rooms. This is one of the weeks he takes me with him, and I find it exciting to be surrounded by all this hustle and know that my father is at the center of it, that these people must wait for him to arrive before business can go on as usual. I feel important just knowing that he is important too. The workers nod to him as he passes, smiling even if he is late, and they pat me on the head with powdery, gloved hands. By the time my father is done with the last section, the entire factory is pulsating with the sound of mixing machines and conveyor belts. The cement floor vibrates slightly beneath my feet. I watch the trays slide into the ovens and come out the other end with shiny golden rolls all in a row, as my father makes conversation with the workers while munching on an egg kichel.
Bubby loves egg kichel. We always bring her some after our trips to the bakery. In the front room of the warehouse there are shelves stocked with sealed and packed boxes of various baked goods ready to be shipped in the morning, and on our way out, we will take as many as we can carry. There are the famous kosher cupcakes with rainbow sprinkles on top; the loaves of babka, cinnamon- and chocolate-flavored; the seven-layer cake heavy with margarine; the mini black-and-white cookies that I only like to eat the chocolate part from. Whatever my father selects on his way out will get dropped off at my grandparents' house later, dumped on the dining room table like bounty, and I will get to taste it all.
What can measure up to this kind of wealth, the abundance of sweets and confections scattered across a damask tablecloth like goods at an auction? Tonight I will fall easily into sleep with the taste of frosting still in the crevices of my teeth, crumbs melting into the pockets on either side of my mouth.
This is one of the few good moments I share with my father. Often he gives me very little reason to be proud of him. His shirts have yellow spots under the arms even though Bubby does most of his laundry, and his smile is too wide and silly, like a clown's. When he comes to visit me at Bubby's house, he brings me Klein's ice cream bars dipped in chocolate and looks at me expectantly as I eat, waiting for my remarks of appreciation. This is being a father, he must think--supplying me with treats. Then he leaves as suddenly as he arrives, off on another one of his "errands."
People employ him out of pity, I know. They hire him to drive them around, deliver packages, anything they think he is capable of doing without making mistakes. He doesn't understand this; he thinks he is performing a valuable service.
My father performs many errands, but the only ones he allows me to participate in are the occasional trips to the bakery and the even rarer ones to the airport. The airport trips are more exciting, but they only happen a couple of times a year. I know it's strange for me to enjoy visiting the airport itself, when I know I will never even get on a plane, but I find it thrilling to stand next to my father as he waits for the person he is supposed to pick up, watching the crowds hurrying to and fro with their luggage squealing loudly behind them, knowing that they are all going somewhere, purposefully. What a marvelous world this is, I think, where birds touch down briefly before magically reappearing at another airport somewhere halfway across the planet. If I had a wish, it would be to always be traveling, from one airport to another. To be freed from the prison of staying still.
After my father drops me off at the house, I might not see him again for a while, maybe weeks, unless I run into him on the street, and then I will hide my face and pretend not to see him, so that I don't get called over and introduced to whomever he is speaking to. I can't stand the looks of curious pity people give me when they find out I am his daughter.
"This is your maideleh?" they croon condescendingly, pinching my cheek or lifting my chin with a crooked finger. Then they peer at me closely, looking for some sign that I am indeed the offspring of this man, so they can later say, "Nebach, poor little soul, it's her fault that she was born? In her face you can see it, she's not all here."
Bubby is the only person who thinks I'm one hundred percent all here. With her you can tell she never questions it. She doesn't judge people. She never came to conclusions about my father either, but maybe that was just denial. When she tells stories of my father at my age, she paints him as lovably mischievous. He was always too skinny, so she would try anything to get him to eat. Whatever he wanted he got, but he couldn't leave the table until his plate was empty. One time he tied his chicken drumstick to a piece of string and dangled it out the window to the cats in the yard so he wouldn't have to stay stuck at the table for hours while everyone was outside playing. When Bubby came back, he showed her his empty plate and she asked, "Where are the bones? You can't eat the bones too." That's how she knew.
I wanted to admire my father for his ingenious idea, but my bubble of pride burst when Bubby told me he wasn't even smart enough to think ahead, to pull the string back up so he could place the freshly gnawed bones back on the plate. At eleven years old, I wished for a more shrewd execution of what could have been an excellent plan.
By the time he was a teenager, his innocent mischief was no longer charming. He couldn't sit still in yeshiva, so Zeidy sent him to Gershom Feldman's boot camp in upstate New York, where they ran a yeshiva for troublesome kids--like regular yeshiva, only with beatings if you misbehaved. It didn't cure my father's strange behavior.
Perhaps in a child, eccentricity is more easily forgiven. But who can explain an adult who hoards cake for months, until the smell of mold is unbearable? Who can explain the row of bottles in the refrigerator, each containing the pink liquid antibiotics that children take, that my father insists on imbibing every day for some invisible illness that no doctor can detect?
Bubby still tries to take care of him. She cooks beef especially for him, even though Zeidy doesn't eat beef since the scandal ten years ago, when some of the kosher beef turned out to be not kosher after all. Bubby still cooks for all her sons, even the married ones. They have wives now to take care of them, but they still come by for dinner, and Bubby acts like it's the most natural thing in the world. At ten o'clock each night she wipes down the kitchen counters and jokingly declares the "restaurant" closed.
I eat here too, and I even sleep here most of the time, because my mother never seems to be around anymore and my father can't be depended on to take care of me. When I was very little, I remember my mother used to read books to me before I fell asleep, stories about hungry caterpillars and Clifford the big red dog. In Bubby's house the only books around are prayer books. Before I go to sleep, I say the Shema prayer.
I'd like to read books again, because those are the only happy memories I have, of being read to, but my English isn't very good, and I have no way of obtaining books on my own. So instead I nourish myself with cupcakes from Beigel's, and egg kichel. Bubby takes such particular pleasure and excitement in food that I can't help but get caught up in her enthusiasm.
Bubby's kitchen is like the center of the world. It is where everyone congregates to chatter and gossip, while Bubby pours ingredients into the electric mixer or stirs the ever-present pots on the stove. Somber talks take place with Zeidy behind closed doors, but good news is always shared in the kitchen. Ever since I can remember, I've always gravitated toward the small white-tiled room, often fogged with cooking vapors. As a toddler I crawled down the one flight of stairs from our apartment on the third floor to Bubby's kitchen on the second floor, edging cautiously down each linoleum-covered step with my chubby baby legs, hoping that a reward of cherry-flavored Jell-O was in it for me at the end of my labors.
It is in this kitchen that I have always felt safe. From what, I cannot articulate, except to say that in the kitchen I did not feel that familiar sense of being lost in a strange land, where no one knew who I was or what language I spoke. In the kitchen I felt like I had reached the place from which I came, and I never wanted to be pulled back into the chaos again.
I usually curl up on the little leather stool stashed between the table and the fridge and watch as Bubby mixes the batter for chocolate cake, waiting for the spatula that I always get to lick clean. Before Shabbos, Bubby stuffs whole beef livers into the meat grinder with a wooden pestle, adding handfuls of caramelized onions every so often and holding a bowl underneath to catch the creamy chopped liver oozing out of the grinder. Some mornings she mixes premium-quality Dutch cocoa and whole milk in a pot and boils it to a bubble, serving up a rich, dark hot chocolate that I sweeten with lumps of sugar. Her scrambled eggs are swathed in buttery slicks; her boondash, or the Hungarian version of French toast, is always crisp and perfectly browned. I like watching her prepare food even more than I like eating it. I love how the house fills with the scents; they travel slowly through the railroad-style apartment, entering each room consecutively like a delicate train of smells. I wake up in the morning in my little room all the way at the other end of the house and sniff expectantly, trying to guess what Bubby is working on that day. She always wakes up early, and there are always food preparations under way by the time I open my eyes.
If Zeidy isn't home, Bubby sings. She hums wordless tunes in her thin, feathery voice as she skillfully whisks a fluffy tower of meringue in a shiny steel bowl. This one is a Viennese waltz, she tells me, or a Hungarian rhapsody. Tunes from her childhood, she says, her memories of Budapest. When Zeidy comes home, she stops the humming. I know women are not allowed to sing, but in front of family it is permitted. Still, Zeidy encourages singing only on Shabbos. Since the Temple was destroyed, he says, we shouldn't sing or listen to music unless it's a special occasion. Sometimes Bubby takes the old tape recorder that my father gave me and plays the cassette of my cousin's wedding music over and over, at a low volume so she can hear if someone's coming. She shuts it off at the merest sound of creaking in the hallway.
Her father was a Kohain, she reminds me. He could trace his legacy all the way back to the Temple priests. Kohains are renowned for having beautiful, deep voices. Zeidy can't carry a tune for the life of him, but he loves to sing the songs his father used to sing back in Europe, the traditional Shabbos melodies that his flat voice distorts into tuneless rambles. Bubby shakes her head and smiles at his attempts. She's long since given up trying to sing along. Zeidy makes everyone sing out of tune, his loud, flat warblings drowning out everyone else's voice until a melody becomes impossible to distinguish. Only one of her sons inherited her voice, Bubby says. The rest are like their father. I tell her I was chosen for a solo in a school choir, that maybe I did inherit my strong, clear voice from her family. I want her to be proud of me.
Bubby never asks how I'm doing in school. She doesn't concern herself with my activities. It's almost as if she doesn't really want to get to know me for who I truly am. She's like that with everyone. I think it's because her whole family was murdered in the concentration camps, and she no longer has the energy to connect emotionally with people.
All she ever worries about is if I'm eating enough. Enough slices of rye bread spread thickly with butter, enough plates of hearty vegetable soup, enough squares of moist, glistening apple strudel. It seems as if Bubby is constantly putting food in front of me, even at the most inappropriate of moments. Taste this roast turkey at breakfast. Try this coleslaw at midnight. Whatever's cooking, that's what's available. There are no bags of potato chips in the pantry, no boxes of cereal even. Everything that is served in Bubby's house is freshly made from scratch.
Zeidy is the one who asks me about school, but mostly just to check if I'm behaving myself. He only wants to hear that I'm conducting myself properly so no one will say he has a disobedient granddaughter. Last week before Yom Kippur he advised me to repent so I could start the year anew, magically transformed into a quiet, God-fearing young girl. It was my first fast; although according to the Torah I become a woman at age twelve, girls start fasting at eleven just to try it out. There is a whole world of new rules in store for me when I cross the bridge from childhood to adulthood. This next year is a sort of practice run.
There are only a few days left before the next holiday, Sukkot. Zeidy needs me to help build the sukkah, the little wooden hut we will all spend eight days eating inside. To lay the bamboo roof, he needs someone to hand him each stick as he perches on top of the ladder, rolling the heavy rods into place on top of the freshly nailed beams. The dowels clatter loudly as they fall into place. Somehow I always end up with this job, which can get boring after hours of standing at the foot of the ladder, passing each individual rod into Zeidy's waiting hands.
Still, I like feeling useful. Even though the rods are at least ten years old and have been stored in the cellar all year, they smell fresh and sweet. I roll them back and forth between my palms, and the surface feels cool to the touch, polished to a sheen by years of use. Zeidy lifts each one up slowly and deliberately. There aren't many domestic tasks that Zeidy is willing to take on, but any form of work related to the preparation for the holidays he makes time for. Sukkot is one of my favorites, since it is spent outdoors in crisp fall weather. As the days begin to taper, I soak up every last remnant of sunshine on Bubby's porch, even if I have to wrap myself in multiple layers of sweaters to keep off the chill. I lie on a bed arranged from three wooden chairs, tilting my face up to the sun that falls haphazardly through the narrow alley between a cluster of back-to-back brownstone tenements. There is nothing more soothing than the feeling of a pale autumn sun on my skin, and I linger until the rays peer weakly above a bleak, dusty horizon.
Sukkot is a long holiday, but it has four days in the middle of it that are somewhat nonceremonious. There are no laws about driving or spending money on those days, called Chol Hamoed, and they are generally spent like any other weekday, except that no work is allowed, and so most people go on family trips. My cousins always go somewhere on Chol Hamoed, and I'm confident that I will end up tagging along with some of them. Last year we went to Coney Island. This year, Mimi says we will go ice-skating in the park.
Mimi is one of the few cousins who are nice to me. I think it's because her father is divorced. Now her mother is married to some other man who's not in our family, but Mimi still comes to Bubby's house a lot to see her father, my uncle Sinai. Sometimes I think our family is divided in half, with the problems on one side and the perfect people on the other. Only the ones with problems will talk to me. No matter, Mimi is so much fun to be around. She is in high school and gets to travel on her own, and she blow-dries her honey-colored hair into a flip.
After two antsy days of my helping Bubby serve the holiday meals, carrying the trays of food from the kitchen to the sukkah and back, Chol Hamoed is finally here. Mimi comes to pick me up in the morning. I am dressed and ready, having followed her instructions perfectly. Thick tights and a pair of socks on top, a heavy sweater over my shirt to keep me warm, puffy mittens for my hands, and a hat as well. I feel swollen and awkward but well prepared. Mimi is wearing a chic charcoal-colored woolen coat with a velvet collar and velvet gloves, and I am jealous of her elegance. I look like a mismatched monkey, the weight of the mittens dragging my arms down comically.
Ice-skating is magical. At first I wobble unsteadily on rented skates, grasping the wall of the rink tightly as I make my way around it, but I get the hang of it very quickly, and once I do, it's like I'm flying. I push off with each foot and then close my eyes through the smooth glide that follows, keeping my back straight like Mimi said to. I have never felt so free.
I can hear the sound of laughter, but it sounds distant, lost in the rush of air whipping past my ears. The sound of skates scraping over the ice is loudest, and I become lost in its rhythm. My motions become repetitive and trancelike and I wish life could be like this all the time. Every time I open my eyes, I expect to be somewhere else.
Two hours pass, and I find that I am ravenous. It is a new kind of hunger, perhaps the hunger that comes from delicious exhaustion, and the emptiness inside me, for once, is pleasant. Mimi has packed kosher sandwiches for us. We hunker down on a bench outside the rink to eat them.
As I munch enthusiastically on my tuna on rye, I notice a family at the picnic table next to us, specifically a girl who looks my age. Unlike me, she appears suitably dressed for ice-skating, with a much shorter shirt and thick, brightly colored tights. She even has furry earmuffs on.
She sees me looking at her and slides off the bench. She holds out a closed palm to me, and when she opens it, there's candy, in a shiny silver wrapper. I've never seen candy like that before.
"Are you Jewish?" I ask, to make sure it's kosher.
"Uh-huh," she says. "I even go to Hebrew school and everything. I know the aleph-bet. My name's Stephanie."
I take the chocolate from her cautiously. Hershey's, it says. Hersh is Yiddish for "deer." It's also a common Jewish name for boys. The ey tacked on the end makes it an affectionate nickname. I wonder what kind of man Hershey is, if his children are proud of him when they see his name stamped on candy wrappers. If only I were lucky enough to have a father like that. Before I can open the chocolate bar to see what it looks like inside, Mimi looks over with a stern face and shakes her head from side to side in warning.
"Thank you," I say to Stephanie, clenching my fist around the bar until it disappears from sight. She tosses her head and runs back to her table.
"You can't eat the chocolate," Mimi announces as soon as Stephanie is out of earshot. "It's not kosher."
"But she's Jewish! She said so herself! Why can't I eat it?"
"Because not all Jews keep kosher. And even the ones that do, it's not always kosher enough. Look, see that mark on the wrapper? It says OUD. That means it's kosher dairy. It's not cholov Yisroel dairy, which means the milk that went into it didn't have the proper rabbinical supervision. Zeidy would be horrified if you brought this into his house."
Mimi takes the chocolate from my hand and drops it into the garbage can next to us.
"I will get you another chocolate," she says. "Later, when we get back. A kosher one. You can have a La-Hit wafer; you like those, right?"
I nod, placated. As I finish my tuna sandwich, I gaze thoughtfully at Stephanie, who is executing jumps on the rubber floor. The serrated front points of her skates make dull thuds each time she lands, her poise perfect. How can you be Jewish and not keep kosher? I wonder. How can you know the aleph-bet but still eat Hershey's chocolate? Doesn't she know any better?
Aunt Chaya has her most disapproving face on. She's sitting next to me at the holiday table, teaching me how to eat my soup without slurping. Her glare is frightening enough to provide incentive for a fast, effective lesson. I live in fear of attracting her attention; it's never positive. Aunt Chaya has always been behind every major decision made about my life, even if I don't really see her very often anymore. I used to live with her, back when my mother had just left for good, driving off in her little black Honda while everyone on the street poked their heads out the window to witness the spectacle. Perhaps she was the first woman in Williamsburg to drive.