Chasidic woman's flight from New York Orthodox life

One woman’s account of running away from her religious community

By Miriam Shaviv, May 25, 2012

Unorthodox, by Deborah Feldman, Simon & Schuster, £16.99

Unorthodox is an account of Deborah Feldman’s Chasidic upbringing in New York, her unhappiness at what she sees as her oppression, and ultimately her escape into secular society. Inevitably, the Satmar community in which Feldman grew up has responded aggressively, accusing her of mistakes, omissions and outright lies.

Most of these seem to be either very minor, or covered by Feldman’s disclaimer at the beginning of the book, in which she explains that she has changed certain details in order to protect the identity of others and maintain narrative flow. Judged on its own merits, the book is a mixed bag.

Feldman, now 25, was always going to stand out in a conservative, conformist society. Her English-born mother ran off to live as a lesbian; her father was a person of limited capability. She was brought up by her paternal grandparents, elderly Holocaust survivors. Her other relatives, Feldman suggests, were embarrassed by the stain she imposed upon the family honour.

Feldman resents her grandparents’ spartan lifestyle and the strictness of her religious girls’ school, but her main source of unhappiness is the limited education it gave her. She is a voracious — secret — reader of secular novels. At 17, she is married off to a man she has met only once. The marriage is hobbled from the beginning by Feldman’s vaginismus — a condition, most common in women who grow up in repressive religious environments, which makes sex painful or impossible. It takes a year for her to overcome this, and they have a son together, but she still cannot forgive her husband for briefly leaving her. Eventually, she puts on a pair of jeans, enrols in a secular college and leaves her old life behind.

Feldman writes well, especially given her early education. The book’s strength is its raw emotion: her anger — and relief — are palpable.
In a way, though, this is also the book’s weakness. Feldman lacks empathy for others who might be equally trapped, such as her husband, or for her loving grandparents. Everything to do with Satmar is bad. No doubt the society in which she grew up was spectacularly intolerant of difference and independent thinking. But her story is as much that of a child of a troubled, broken home as it is of a Chasidic rebel.

She does occasionally acknowledge that other women throughout history have been trapped by circumstance and marriage. At her college, she understands that some of her all-American classmates are as frustrated with their lives as she was with hers. Escaping into general society is the beginning of the journey, not the end. And, cathartic as her flight may have been, more of that perspective would have been welcome.

Miriam Shaviv is a freelance journalist

Last updated: 11:20am, May 25 2012