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You’ve seen “Unorthodox” on Netflix. Should you read the book?

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Why I read Unorthodox

Like the rest of the world, I watched some Netflix during the recent quarantine.  I probably didn’t watch as much as most other people because keeping up with my reading for The Lois Level keeps me pretty busy, but I did watch a little, and when I found Unorthodox, the story of a woman’s life in the Ultra Orthodox Satmar Jewish congregation, I watched it nearly straight through, which piqued my interest in the book. 

To be honest, the story in the miniseries, while enjoyable, didn’t quite ring true to me. If it were true, I wanted details!

Luckily, my local library reopened pretty quickly for pick up, and I was able to get a copy.


Hasidic Family in Borough Park, Brooklyn, NYC.

Adam Jones / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) 19 October 2013

 

Why you should read Unorthodox

 

First of all, Deborah Feldman’s actual experiences as depicted in her book are nothing like the Netflix show.  She did  not “escape” to Germany, and she did not enmesh herself with a group of students and earn herself a scholarship to music school with no serious music education. 

 

She never mentions studying music at all or any interest in it.  Instead, her thing is reading, and she describes figuring out how to sneak time in libraries and hiding books under her mattress.  Of course, these are behaviors that I understand completely, but I guess they don’t make compelling television. 

Feldman certainly didn’t run to Germany to escape her community, and of course, her husband didn’t follow her either.  Since the escape never happened.

To be honest, through Feldman’s depiction of her husband, he struck me as an ok guy who quite possibly also feels constrained by his religion.

There is a rogue uncle or cousin in the book, but his story is more interesting because it is so banal: he had fallen in love, somehow, with an Ultra Orthodox woman  who was simply the WRONG kind of Ultra Orthodox. Which for the Satmar community, is a big problem.

This is how it goes y’all: either you go for “ethnic purity” or whatever, which yes, keeps your group together and probably often makes marriage easier…it certainly is easier to be married to people who think like you…but at some point, you’re just going to make that gene pool too small, which creates other, more severe, problems.

What did happen is that Feldman orchestrated her departure from her community gradually, first by convincing her husband to move closer to his family, which was in a less restrictive area, and then by convincing him to let her learn to drive, and then by using her freedom to drive to go do what she wanted. 

In the end, it sounds like she and her husband mutually agreed to divorce in a pretty amicable way.  I noted that she includes photos of her ex-husband and various family members in the book, which she must have had their permission to do.

To be honest, I thought neither her husband nor anyone in the book are really bad people at all.  Probably people in very strict religions are mostly really good people…just my guess…because otherwise they probably would be quicker to leave these communities or never join them in the first place, especially when the corruption or hypocrisies become evident.  Just saying, although I’m sure I’m making a gross overgeneralization.

She and her husband were both very young and very sheltered…they don’t have a lot of tools there to make it work. Add to that Deborah’s inherent love of something forbidden (the evil reading in English), and the fact that her mother left the congregation years ago…the odds aren’t good.

 There are certainly inconsistencies in Feldman’s story.  At times, she mentions she and her husband not having enough money for basics, like maternity clothes, yet, at the same time, she seems to be able to orchestrate her enrollment at Sarah Lawrence College, and the funds to pay for it, easily.  That doesn’t make sense to me because paying for college is never easy, even with scholarships.  There are always added expenses, and then there is the time that she would be off actually going to classes and doing the work. 

So to be honest, at times I don’t completely believe her. She’s either kidding herself (or hasn’t had enough time to process her experiences) or she’s covering up for her relatives who are still in the community.

So far, this probably sounds like reasons why you should not read this book.  And yes, I admit, it’s definitely not the best book I ever read. 

Feldman even admits in the latter part of the book that she got a publisher through connections at Sarah Lawrence, and she rushed into publication to make money.

But this book is a fairly quick read, so here is the compelling part of the story.  The part that makes me sad, which is the reason this community was created in the first place. 

The people in Feldman’s community created the strictest community that they could because they believe they are being punished for the Holocaust.  They believe they have to adhere to every single law in the strictest manner possible in order to appease God and avoid another Holocaust.

Feldman even describes the reaction of the 9/11 attacks as a precursor to the second Holocaust: her community fully expected the police to come for them.

 It’s as though they didn’t even know that there was a different threat.   And since they had little, if anything, to do with mainstream media, I’m not sure they did. 

I was most particularly drawn to the story of Feldman’s grandmother, who was also effectively Feldman’s mother.  She lost every single member of her family in the camps.  She was the only one to come out.  And this is how she dealt with it.

A life built on fear.  

With this type of story, I kind of expect to learn about some sort of corruption, and while there are problems, Feldman never describes systemic corruption.  She writes about how God’s law could suddenly be reinterpreted and changed, but again, it was from the belief that problems came from failing God.  She never makes a case that the Rabbis in charge of their community did not believe this.


annulla/flickr/4 January 2007

 

More about Deborah Feldman

Trailer for the Netflix Miniseries

Interview

Be sure to watch this compelling interview with Deborah Feldman. If you are going to read Unorthodox, save it until after you have read the book. Filmed in 2016, it offers perspective that Feldman did not seem to have in 2012, when Unorthodox was published. This interview also sheds some light on why the miniseries might have been set in Berlin.

More Writing

Feldman has also published a second memoir, Exodus.

Perspectives

I’m interested in reading this book, but I have to say that I am interested in reading more about Feldman’s experiences in large part because it is the story of the post traumatic pain the The Holocaust caused, not just to those who endured it, but down through the generations.

It’s important to understand because, thank God, while the Nazi Holocaust is over, people continue to be persecuted across the world for who they are and what they believe.

Feldman also speaks eloquently in the interview about the odd contradiction that women’s bodies represent in repressive societies (in particular) that echoes across religions and ethnic groups.


A mikvah is a ritual bath that married women must have after their periods each month. This picture shows the sign for the one in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NYC. Feldman writes extensively about her experiences there.

annulla/flickr/4 January 2007

Before closing, there are two issues that are important for you to understand:

  1. Feldman’s Hasidic sect is NOT Zionist, meaning that they are actually opposed to Jewish settlement in Palestine and the formation of the Jewish state of Israel. They believe that God wants the nation (not the state) of Israel to wait on His timing.

    Even before World War 2, Zionists had already begun moving to Palestine and settling in the area that is now Tel Aviv. Feldman speaks and writes about how the sect she was raised in believes this settlement was a cause of the Holocaust as it caused God to curse them.

  2. As you get deeper into Feldman’s story, you will find out how she has made peace with the German people and has come to understand that while there are still Nazis (both in Germany and other places, like the United States), by and large, Germany and the Germans have done their best to atone for what happened during the War.

    You can read more about that on The Lois Level in this article:

Have you ever wondered if you have Nazis in your family?

For a look at a repressive Christianity-based sect in New Zealand, read the about the classic Young Adult novel, My Name is Not Esther here: When Does a Religion become a Cult? Fleur Beale’s “I Am Not Esther”.

You Tell Us

This issues are so complicated; what do they mean to you?

Share your thoughts! We want to hear your perspective and most definitely your reading recommendations!