Book Review| Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman

Updated: Nov 18



Hi 👋🏽 bookish friends! Sending a big warm WELCOME to all the newbies following @readingonthernblog. We are so glad that you are here! The rules of probability say that you are likely reading this post in search of a well written, entertaining and educational book. You’ve come to the right place.

Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman (@deborah_feldman ) is a memoir detailing how and why the author decided to leave her Orthodox Hasidic Jewish Community to eventually flee to Germany (of all places!). Having previously never exiting Williamsburg, a small town in Brooklyn, New York where ancestors of her community settled, Feldman bravely left behind the only way of life she had ever known. #Netflix, a video streaming service, features a limited series of the same name. Though motion picture is very entertaining, every reader knows the book is always better. For a busy book lover like myself, the @audible #audiobook version was very enjoyable. Fittingly, it is exquisitely read by Rachel Botchan and Cassandra Campbell. Feldman’s writing may be just as exquisite, very formal, yet exquisite non-the-less. Feldman has curated a writing style which maintains the beauty of literary formalities yet still manages to pull the reader into the story, avoiding the scholastic composition essay feel that some writers just can’t manage to shake.


In this memoir, initially we are introduced to young Deborah being raised by her deeply religious and devoted grandparents, evaluating if her destiny is already predetermined based on the fate of her biological parents. The first chapter takes the reader through a vivid mirage of how, as a child, she found her “Superpower: acting convincingly, getting others to believe what she truly doesn’t feel”. A superpower which would allow her to maintain solace in her community until she ultimately decides to leave.


“If you have no roots, you have no legacy. All our worth is defined by the worth of our ancestors. We make the name for our children. [I wondered] who would want me with no name to pass on?” ~Deborah Feldman

Deborah’s mother, originally from a separate Jewish community in Europe, married her father at a young age, moved away from home and attempted to start a family as expected. Later she would learn that her husband is socially inept, maybe mentally ill, which causes her to break under the pressure of cultural norms. With no choice other than to leave Deborah behind, her mother escaped the community, never to look back. At least, until it was Deborah’s turn to marry.


Naturally curious, witty, intelligent and with a deep desire to be helpful, Deborah outlines a case which leads the reader to assume it was almost impossible for her to meet the expectations of her community. For example, as a child Deborah loved to read all books, which in her community was forbidden for women, especially those of the Holy book (“Talmud”). Several chapters refer to her hiding books or hiding the knowledge she had gained from reading books to assimilate. Reading books was even a negotiation in which she needed to make with her husband during their marriage. A secret he would agree to keep from their respective families as well.


Reading the Talmud is where Feldman associates the loss of her innocence: a point where she stopped believing in authority. This was also compounded by her reading other forbidden readings detailing fellow community members being in the “outside world”. Though located in the heart of New York City, following the rules of her community meant no outside influence from the “Goys”, a term reserved for anyone not of the Hasidic Jewish community and even extended to her mother once exiled.


Feldman gracefully guides the reader through phases of her childhood, education, romantic engagements, marriage, motherhood and eventually exit of the community. Also, we get to see the smaller linear steps which lead her to become a talented writer. Her thirst for knowledge, sparked a love for reading which set a fire for writing. A Goy English teacher, contracted to teach at a private school in her community, challenged her to learn writing as an art. Eventually this led Deborah to becoming a teacher in Williamsburg and pursuing a formal education outside of her community (also forbidden). After starting a blog about her Orthodox Jewish experiences, Deborah extraordinarily landed her first book deal. Seeing this opportunity as her way out, she wrote a raw, gripping tale about experiences that very few shared.


“Later in my adulthood, I’ll [look back] and understand that I wasn’t equipped as a child to make room for arguments that would undermine every single choice made for me. That would shatter the foundations of my very existence. I would see that I had to believe everything I was taught if only to survive. For a long time, I wouldn’t be ready to accept that my world view could be wrong.” ~Deborah Feldman

One of the most interesting storylines in the book is of Deborah and her husband. It is presented as a strange shell of a love story tainted by cultural expectations. An environment where Deborah describes no greater love could exist than that of the rules and goals of the community as a whole. One in which she (and their son) could never be primary.


The updated audio version includes an Epilogue and Afterward in which Feldman writes about the aftermath of the book. Saddening events in which the community she once belonged equates her to some of the most horrible human beings in history because of her perceived betrayal in Deborah positioning the Hasidic Jewish Community as extremism.


I struggled with writing this review. Though I thoroughly enjoyed the writing style and story, Feldman shares a deeply personal topic. One that includes a community, her community, that descends from a very public painful past. One of experiences that I personally could never know the intimacies of, which makes me apprehensive in sharing an opinion. However, I find stories like Feldman’s to be some of my favorite stories. Ones that in some way may be parallel to many but tends to seldom share the spotlight. Ones that are perceived to never intersect with the rest of the world. Well written personal stories that connect the dots on distant pages, teaching us that all of our stories intersect, none are parallel; it’s just a matter of time. The human experience doesn’t need proximity. We are all connected. The public reasons that make the history of this story sensitive and uncomfortable are the same reasons that must have made it extremely difficult for Feldman to write and share with the world.


Whether one knows very little or much about this topic, Unorthodox is a symbolism of courage. Without confirming or denying the conclusions Feldman proposes or the actions that followed, one of the most freeing and difficult actions for those in a mature value structure is to, not only, question the norms but also take the responsibility of deciding whether to propagate those norms. Even if that means the opposite of what everyone in the structure has ever taught. Feldman decided to become the hero of her own story.


For those reasons, this is a story for everyone.


Chapter Synopsis:

Prologue

Chapter 1: In Search of My Secret Power

Chapter 2: The Age of My Innocence

Chapter 3: The Dawning of Knowledge

Chapter 4: The Inferiority of My Connections

Chapter 5: Possessed of purpose

Chapter 6: Not Worth Fighting For

Chapter 7: Costly Ambitions

Chapter 8: Justice Prevails

Chapter 9: Up in Arms

Epilogue

Afterword


Happy Reading Friends,

Xoxoxoxoxo,

ROTR


Follow ROTR on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube

Share this review with a fellow book lover!