Unorthodox, Deborah Feldman

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I confess that I came upon this book through Oprah and, of course, it was one of those visible books because of its subject matter: the incredible insight into a largely closed and private community and the flagrant rejection of everything that that community represents.

As an observant Jew I was intrigued to read this book for so many reasons: I was looking forward to the insight into the Chassidic community, to reading about how an individual deals with the cultural pressures that come with such a traditional upbringing and to understand better how we can all balance our heritage with the need to belong in the modern world.

In many ways, I wasn’t entirely disappointed by what I read. Feldman’s book clearly provides an insight into the Chassidic community, she grapples with the expectations which her family have of her and she tries to find a way to merge her desire to belong in the modern world with her connection to her family. That said, there were many things which did not sit well with me in this book. Perhaps I am too critical, it’s hard to know whether my bias and my expectations are too tied up with my own religiosity. Nonetheless, here goes:

1. The protagonist’s mother is too absent and there is no real explanation of her absence, how it came about – how a mother could possibly leave a child in a place which she did not feel she herself could make a home? Despite the fact that the mother is so central to the story which begins with an interview with, I didn’t feel that there was any proper engagement with the trauma that her absence surely caused.

2. What amazing grandparents this woman had and how overlooked they are in this book! How incredible that grandparents would stand in for parents? That they would raise their granddaughter as their own child without questioning for a moment, that they would provide her with so many opportunities and try to do for what they thought was best – all of this was overlooked as the criticism of the community took front and centre in this text. How sad for these selfless people.

3. Feldman’s father. What can we say. He is so marginalised in this text and despite the fact that there are several observations (perhaps criticisms) about how the Chassidic community deals with mental illness, Feldman herself makes no attempt to recognise her father or bring him into her narrative. She maligns him as much as everyone else does and this felt extremely hypocritical to me.

Mostly, I found this book extremely disturbing. The entire structure of the family lives of the people we encountered was so distressing on so many levels that I can’t even begin to say what it was exactly that disturbed me most. All I could think was: what a sad individual, what a sad life, what sad people. And this runs contrary to what my personal experience has shown me. So, I think that this is a interesting book to read because it certainly raises a number of valuable questions about families and the choices individuals make. However, I think that much like all memoirs or autobiographies, it should be read with an alert eye and not taken as entirely truthful. It is one person’s perception of events and therefore it is clearly slanted.

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