Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Unorthodox and Exodus: A Feldman, Pesach, Double-Feature Book Review

I was a little late on wishing everyone a Happy Passover this year. I had a lot going on and for various reasons, did not celebrate much of anything. Next year, though.

In any case, I did get a lot of reading done, and even though I didn't celebrate Passover, I at least read a Jewish book. Two Jewish books in fact.

A while back a friend of mine recommended Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots   by Deborah Feldman. It's a frankly written memoir by a young woman who was raised in the ultra-orthodox Satmar community in Brooklyn and who, after an arranged marriage and a child, decided once and for all to leave a world where she never truly fit in.

Now, here's a little background for the uninitiated. The Satmars are pretty much nuts, at least that's what I was raised to believe. When I was a kid in Rockland County, New York (where Feldman actually moves after her marriage) my grandfather sold produce to the orthodox community of New Square in Spring Valley, so I regularly saw these people because in the summers my grandfather and mother made me ride around in the back of a pickup truck while they peddled fruit and vegetables to Chasids, but that's another story. Back then, we also spent a lot of time in the city and around my father's family's modern orthodox community so I knew my Jews, so to speak. I remember being in Brooklyn and having my dad explain to me all about the different sects of Chasidism and it was pretty standard knowledge that the Satmars were insane. They were the dudes in the big, flat, round, furry hats who hated Israel, I learned.

That is, in fact, pretty true. The Satmar sect is anti-Zionist, though I never understood why until reading Feldman's book. They are so anti-Zionist that they go so far as to side with fanatical, Holocaust denying, Iranian Muslims who want Israel wiped off the map.

When I was little, I sort of equated the Chasidic Jews with the Amish, who I'd also grown up around when we lived in rural Delaware. They both dressed strangely, weren't too friendly, were deeply religious and rule bound and they had a ridiculous mess of kids running around. Plus the beards and hats. Same shit, different Bible, basically.

I've always had a fascination with insular religious groups - what they do and why and what makes these people tick. While I grew up seeing the Chasidic people in my community, I honestly didn't know all that much about them, and I'd always been curious.

Thanks to Feldman's memoir, I now know and because she answered every question I'd ever had, plus a few more, I absolutely devoured her memoir. Unorthodox is brutally honest and spares no detail, which is why it works so well. On a deeper level, this isn't just a sensationalist, tell-all type of book meant to expose and shame a group of people. Far from it, actually. This is Feldman's story, period. Yes, she details the seemingly bizarre and elaborate rituals that make up Satmar life and she explains why they believe what they do, but ultimately this is the story about why these rituals and that way of life failed to nurture her unique spirit. 

Unorthodox is about being an outsider, about going against the grain of an oppressive society. It's about having the courage to not compromise one's own ideals, not suppressing one's talents and individuality for the imagined greater good of the community as a whole. And that, my readers, combined with Feldman's beautiful, insightful writing, makes for a fantastic book.

That said, a Google search of Feldman or her books, will reveal a slew of bad reviews and articles that trash her character. She has been accused of James Frey-like levels of fabricating her story and she's been called a flat out liar. Because of all this, I almost didn't read the book, but I did and once I read her story, I understood a lot more about what was going on. First of all, she is accused of leaving out information about her mother and a younger sister, but honestly this wasn't particularly relevant to the story.

Memoirists don't tell ALL of every story. Life simply doesn't always allow for that and when we write memoir (I'm speaking from experience) we must choose only the most important and meaningful parts to include. At the same time, memoirists must be mindful of protecting the privacy of loved ones who may not wish to be included in a public detailing of their life. I don't know Feldman's particular reasons for not including her sister in her book and I don't care. It isn't our business and I'm sure her sister wasn't relevant to the story she was telling. The end. Who cares? Same goes for her mom. She mentions her, but not a lot. So what? I got the impression they barely knew one another.

As for discrepancies, well, I'm going to chalk that up to Feldman most likely not being told a lot about her mother growing up. It's also possible that her family lied to her considerably. The Satmars, as one can deduce from the memoir, aren't above telling numerous untruths in order to protect their image and their sect. They are a paranoid people, scarred brutally by the Holocaust and trying to make sense of a world which has persecuted Jews for thousands of years and they believe in taking whatever drastic steps they think are necessary for their own safety no matter the real ethical cost. Feldman's family and community were absolutely incensed by her memoir. I get this. An elaborate smear campaign to save face is an expected reaction and that's all I think the allegations are. So ignore the haters and read the book anyway.
Feldman's follow up to Unorthodox,  Exodus: A Memoir just came out a couple weeks ago, so I had to immediately get my hands on it. Again, bad reviews, but don't listen. Haters still hatin' and these people are not going to leave this woman alone. Ignore them.

Exodus is less a linear narrative with a defined plot than Unorthodox, but memoir is often more about introspection and one's own character development than a series of events anyway. I have zero issues with reading a character-driven, more literary memoir, which Exodus is.

And interestingly, Exodus doesn't exactly pick up where Unorthodox left off. Instead, this is about Feldman trying to recover from the traumas of her childhood. It's a book about healing and self-discovery and trying to understand why her family acted and believed and manipulated and acted as desperately as they did. It's about Feldman trying to understand her roots while trying to establish new ones.

It's deep and thoughtful, heartbreaking, passionate and raw. Feldman's brutal honesty comes through again, magnificently. As I read her words I am continually awed and inspired by her bravery and strength. I wish I had a shred of this woman's courage, because I don't (I also wish I had her talent and her agent and her book deal too, dammit!). I see Feldman, who isn't even 30 yet, I don't think, as such a role model for all women. She's accomplished something rare and incredible and should be celebrated, not torn down. I hope to see a lot more from her in the future.


Dayna said...

Victoria thanks to you I buy many books, especially if I read your blog late at night/wee hours of the morning. I am not sure what is the fascination of online shopping in the middle of the night when everyone else in my house is sleeping. Amazon should send you a complementary gift card.
Now if life could just slow down for a minute, so I could actually read some of these books I have purchased.

Wide Lawns said...

Aww thanks! I love recommending book for people and I love supporting other authors. I figure it's good karma you know? I've always loved reading and sharing so much. I used to give my books away as soon as I was done but now I have a kindle so this is my way of giving books away now, sort of. I got started making book lists back when I was teaching and my students would ask me what they should read. I would tailor make book lists for each of them based on their interests. I really miss doing that.

TJ said...

Thanks so much for these 2 recommendations. I read them both in a matter of days. I really enjoyed her writing. And, yes, I was totally freaked out at the beliefs and traditions that she explained. My prior knowledge was not that extensive so, yikes, was I ever appalled. Glad she found her footing elsewhere. I've already passed on the books!

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