While the freedom of religion is a founding tenet of the United States, not all religious communities respect this choice. Several weeks ago, I read Educated by Tara Westover (review here) and learned about the author’s strict Mormon upbringing in rural Idaho and eventual escape from her cloistered lifestyle. More recently, I read Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman, which has a similar theme, but instead of strict Mormonism in Idaho, the author grows up in a Hassidic Jewish family in Brooklyn. Both of these memoirs take you into a world that is largely hidden to outsiders. A glimpse into Feldman’s life reveals the great chasm between her traditional Hassidic community and everyone else.
If you are not a follower of Judaism, it can be almost natural to clump all members under one homogenous Jewish umbrella. This, of course, is oversimplified and benignly ignorant. Within the Jewish community there is great diversity in the interpretations of religion and the in followers of the faith. Feldman’s family observes the Satmar Hasidic tradition, an ultra-conservative strand of Judaism that dictates all facets of one’s lifestyle including education, dress, marriage roles, and even how a woman handles menstruation. Feldman grew up knowing English and Yiddish but was discouraged from speaking English as the language was considered impure. Feldman attended a special school for Jewish students and most of her education came from holy texts rather than from secular sources. While Feldman observes how her classmates all seem complacent with their ways of life, Feldman questions every aspect of it and decides that she wants more for herself than an arranged marriage and to play the role of a wife and mother.
Through this memoir the reader will learn more about Feldman’s upbringing, her tight-knit Hasidic community, and her eventual escape from everything she was taught. Along the way, the reader will become acquainted with many different aspects of Jewish culture including celebrations such as Sukkot and Shabbat, customs such as Niddah (concerning family purity and menstruation) and Shidduch (matchmaking), and family life including the roles husbands and wives are expected to assume. I found this book to be incredibly fascinating. The first part of the book explains a lot about the Jewish religion and culture of the observers (mostly just the views of Feldman’s community), which I admittedly knew very little about beforehand. The middle and the end of the book to me, however, was most interesting as we learn about how Feldman’s coming of age moments coincide with her radical renunciation of her religion.
If you enjoy memoirs, especially Educated by Tara Westover, I certainly recommend that you add Unorthodox to your reading list. Additionally, if memoirs aren’t your thing, “Unorthodox” (at the time of this writing) is available on Netflix as a mini-series.
It’s about time!