March 26, 2020 Book Review: Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman
When Deborah Feldman’s memoir hit shelves in 2012, all hell broke loose. Not before or after have I seen so much to-do about our little niche world of defectors of the Hasidic faith. Everyone was talking about Unorthodox, raving, ranting, attacking, defending, calling her a James Frey or an Angela’s Ashes—fussing it all the way to the New York Time’s bestsellers list. I too was a cauldron of hot-headed opinion and “taking sides.” Soon, there were fault lines among ex-Hasidim. Some tried to criticize Feldman, and some saw this criticism as betrayal. I was among the critics, and that fact rained Feldman’s and other people’s anger down on me. I still hear about my unforgivable betrayal. Yes all we were talking about were pieces of the book and the book publicity. I didn’t give the book a careful read that first time. I was too worked up.
Now, the dust has settled. I have much more distance from the story. I’ve also reaped a bit of the overflow from the book’s success; many fans of Unorthodox wind up in Williamsburg on my walking tour because Feldman piqued their interest. We are also talking about her again because the Netflix miniseries adaption of her book is due to hit on the 26th of this month. I’m cooped up in our New York City apartment with my Kindle, suffering the Covid quarantine. It’s a good time to give the book a careful review, with, I think, more objectivity, and also with an eye for how readers have reacted to the book since its publication.
In order to give you the context in which I come to this book, let me tell you that I’m a metaphorical cousin second-removed to it. Here are the connections: I also was raised in the Satmar Hasidic community, and I also have one son. I am a year older than Feldman. We both got divorced with dreams for more, we both are public about our journey. I also lived in Rockland County. People often comment that I am like her. It makes me want to pounce and gauge their eyes out, but I can’t blame them.
More relevantly, I know half the cast of characters. Mindy the brilliant friend: She was my camp buddy and email pen pal for many years; she’s a magnetic personality. Her villainous mother-in-law: She was our chef through middle and high school, and she was like an icon in our schools; she was known for her eggplant parmesan and for shooing girls out of the kitchen as we went on the prowl for a toaster to make the whole-wheat bread more edible. Her husband’s “ugly” and “jealous” sister in law: She was my tenth grade first aid teacher and was known as “lively;” she, like me, lived on Satmar Drive. And the sleep-away camp scenes: Of course I too was in summer camp and can vouch for Mr. Rosenberg’s red beard and Mrs. Halberstam’s renown…and for that field of tall grass. And then there’s Eli, Feldman’s husband, who, like me, grew up on Satmar Drive in Monroe, although we didn’t know each other until much later. We met as residents of the greater Monsey area in about 2010, well before we had any idea about all the shit would go down. We were close for many years, and had a million playdates with our sons. Eli and Yitzy were really like family.
I never met Deborah. She came as close as pulling up to my house in an SUV to collect her son, but that’s it. I never understood her. But now, by rereading her book, I think I know her. And I don’t like her much. She lives in an inner world in which things are skewed, poisonous. She is an unreliable narrator because she sees the world in distortions, and herself as a victim of everything. This helped me understand her, but it also confuses any reader who doesn’t have enough context, and it ends up creating a false brand of feminism, pointing a judgmental finger at Hasidic women who don’t leave the fold, regardless of their reason or ability.
I’ve browsed the bulk of the reviews on both her books, and the single question readers want answered is: How did she escape? How did Eli allow her to take the child? How did she get custody? Was it proven that she lied about something? How did she get on her feet financially? Why doesn’t she fill us in on this in her follow-up memoir, Exodus?
She does answer all these questions. It’s there, in Unorthodox. She tells us of the important moments but with many spins and misrepresentations. She is so consumed with her perpetual victimization that the reader doesn’t notice how her life evolves, how she slowly inches away from her childhood world.
Let me tell you how she left, how she was able to get custody, how her husband allowed it; I’ll tell you by drawing entirely from Unorthodox.
Feldman introduces us to her life in the Williamsburg Hasidic community when she is a young teen. The early chapters of the book are very different from the second half. These are a series of descriptive essays without any forward progression in the narrative. She paints her world, and sometimes it is even lovely. She tells us the important part of her story: her shame. Her family isn’t “normal,” whatever the wretched word means. Her father is cognitively disabled, and her mother has previously come out as gay and left the fold. In the eyes of the community, Feldman is a bit of a pity. She feels that people look down at her and she is not comfortable being assigned to the lowest rungs in the hierarchy of status. She is already uncomfortable, already not snugly fixed into this world.
I don’t say this with judgement, heaven forfend; it is more likely that those who already don’t fit in will leave. Think Shulem Deen, who also published a memoir (you can read that review here) or Gitty Grunwalk, who was in New York Magazine. The community loves to point out that those who leave are more likely to come from “broken” homes. “Why did she leave?—ah, a broken home, poor thing, tut tut tut, she just fell through the cracks…” The community reads this as proof that the breakaways are damaged people who are not rejecting Hasidic society, but are rejecting their own lives. But that’s not why coming from a different background makes you more likely to leave.
People with families like Feldman’s are more likely to leave because they are not as deeply ingrained as those who have an entire respectable family in the community. For the “broken” homes, roots don’t run so deep, or there aren’t as many roots to begin with. In Feldman’s case, she had a mother on the outside and a father who wasn’t present. She lived with her grandparents where she had much less oversight than the supposedly normal children who suffered snitching and snooping siblings. (I know she has a sibling but don’t know the details.) Because she has a looser leash, she reads more. She can show off her advanced reading in class, and she buys herself contraband books in Boro Park. She gets away with it. She becomes a sixth grade secular studies teacher, a position held by the fanciest and most stylish girls.
I’m showing the ways she is “deviating,” but I don’t deny her struggles. Undoubtedly, she was raised in hard circumstances, in a community of trauma and where the patriarchy inflicts its damage on women on a whole other level. The small ways that she modernizes or chafes or breaks the norms trace the growing chasm between the expectations of the Hasidic community and her becoming an ex-Hasidic minor celebrity. The chasm grows slowly. The reader might easily miss it.
The weightier changes unfold in the second half of the book. At age seventeen, Feldman gets engaged to another “problem case.” She is to marry Eli, an older boy from the insular village of Monroe. He was twenty-four at the time, and that senior age tells you that he is trouble. Older boys are usually “bums,” the ones who just didn’t get engaged when their friends did and got bored and adventurous on the sly. It is hard to see in the early chapters that Eli is Hasidic Lite, because Feldman does not tell us much about him. She is fixated first on his blond hair (I hear one more word of blond hair and blue eyes and I scream!) then on silly grievances over the gifts she gives verses the gifts she receives, and then on the very heartbreaking difficulty consummating the marriage, as the couple grasps in the dark for answers and takes a year to understand and treat her vaginismus. This is especially devastating because as these sheltered novices grapple in the dark for help, their entire respective families butt in and violate their privacy, making things exponentially worse.
But even as several real and petty crises overshadow the story about Eli’s religiosity, we see glimpses of him as more “with it.” Here are some things that are a tiny bit subversive: Most girls from Monroe don’t talk on the phones with their grooms, a golden wristwatch is fancier than a pocket-watch (which is what my family gives in gift exchanges), and it is not par for the course for a sheltered Hasidic bride to be poured wine in champagne flutes. Romantic gestures from my wedding night entailed sitting at the kitchen table and making super awkward conversation while we noshed from the three-layer cake on the triple level cobalt dishes. Feldman and her husband are first to embrace the new phenomena of kosher Chinese food, and they “sneak out to go bowling.”
Things soon get devilishly goyish. Eli is a romantic (this I know to be true), and Feldman recounts that when she gets home from the ritual bath, she finds “the lights dimmed and rose pedals sprinkled on the bed sheets.” And ooh la la, “Eli likes foreplay more than I do. Before sex, he wants to kiss and touch, and feel loved.” Also not typical for repressed religious extremists, he “tries to teach me to kiss slowly…He wants to make the experience last as long as possible.”
Of course, sex alone is never indicative of an entire relationship, as too many hypocritical males on this planet will prove. In their everyday life, Eli is also “progressive.” When Feldman vomits, “Eli hears me and comes out to hold my head, which is something he is used to doing for me.” There he is for the housework. “He takes to cleaning up the kitchen while I am ostensibly at the mikvah.” He takes her to her appointments, from the doctors about a rash, hypnosis, the many pregnancy scares, anxiety treatments, the unexplained STD. He takes a great interest in their child and cries when she finds out they will have a son and then again when the child is born. When the baby is born, she doesn’t want to hold the baby right away because “A glimpse of squirming, slimy pinkness makes me want to vomit,” but “Eli is already over by the crib, peering between the shoulders of two doctors…Eli is tearing up next to me.” When they arrive home with the newborn, “Eli has cleaned the apartment thoroughly, and when we get home, everything has been set up for the baby.”
Eli agrees to relocate from the Williamsburg enclave to the city’s suburb, Rockland County. This gives her an enormous amount of freedom. Feldman describes her new home in a community of non-conformists:
“I moved to Airmont… It used to be a small group of Hasidic families that had migrated from places like Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel, where the lifestyle was too rigid and extreme for them to be happy. A few young couples, like us—wives who wore long human-hair wigs and jean skirts, husbands who drank beer and smoked marijuana on poker nights. Someone called a “bum” in Williamsburg was now just another lapsed Hasid in the sprawling, diverse Jewish community of Rockland County. The difference between living in Airmont and living in Williamsburg is that as long as you don’t talk about it, you can break the rules. You can have the privacy to live the life you choose as long as you don’t draw attention to yourself.”
It’s a big deal that she can convince her husband to move; it’s an uprooting of sorts. I remember when people in my circle were saying she moved. I still lived in Kiryas Joel, and when I heard through the grapevine that she moved, I envied her so much because my husband was adamant not to move, as it’s a “slippery slope.”
Feldman needs only to prod a little to get her husband to pack up with her:
“Eli has difficulty adjusting to change; he is by nature averse to any sort of risk taking. For weeks I lay the groundwork, reminding him how tedious his two hour commute to work is and how deeply that will cut into his time with the baby. All his brothers and sisters live upstate, I point out.”
So they move.
In the new environment, Feldman tackles a new milestone: learning to drive. This would have never been possible in Williamsburg. I wrote a longer post about the way Williamsburg women came to be barred from driving. Women are not allowed to drive. If they do, their children are not accepted to schools. This can be a problem if the husband refuses to consider more modern schools. Leaving is so hard if there are children who are enmeshed in the expansive Hasidic school system, but Feldman will never enroll her kid there. Feldman lives in Rockland County and is pregnant with her son when she starts on instruction:
“Steve is my driving teacher…I wake up early so I can get the vomiting out of the way, and by the time he honks his horn outside, my stomach is usually settled enough… When we get back, Eli is sitting on one of the lounge chairs on the front lawn waiting for me, and Steve looks out at him and says “That’s your husband?”
I nod yes.
“Huh. He looks like a hip dude.”
Soon she grows her hair in and wears bouncy long wigs; her entire look changes. When she visits Williamsburg to introduce the baby to his grandparents, the local kids peg her as a shiksa:
“I return to Williamsburg in the summer to visit Bubby and show off the baby, and I wear my long wig with the curls in it and a pretty dress that I bought from Ann Taylor and had lengthened so it would cover my knees…Walking down Penn Street pushing the baby carriage we got as a gift, I hear a little boy, no more than six years old, whisper to his playmate,
‘Farvus vuktzi du, di shiksa?’—’Why does this gentile woman walk here?’
I realize he is referring to me, dressed too well to fit into his idea of a Hasidic woman.”
Her next secular endeavor is college. She is still married, still very young. As always, she is dreaming of ginormous things. She tells Eli that she will take college classes. She fudges a bit, telling him it will be for business, not literature. “I will learn bookkeeping and marketing and things like that.” He is fine with it. He asks her about the practical implications and “if I will be home to pick up Yitzy from day care.” According to Frimet Goldberger who was in her social circle in Airmont, Feldman drove about town with a Sarah Lawrence College sticker on the bumper.
She loves Sarah Lawrence College, tickling herself over her smart sounding comments in class, wearing jeans and her hair out, fraternizing with men, going to bars with blonde haired shiksas, tasting the glory.
It’s a long way from Williamsburg.
Feldman wants more; she wants something specific. She wants a big life, to be a somebody. In college, she connects with people who know people in publishing. As she sees the bright future, she feels held back by her marriage.
“Eli and I go to a religious marriage counselor together. Afterwards Eli turns to me and says ‘We should just get a divorce, no? It’s not like this is ever going to work.’
I shrug my shoulders. ‘We could get a divorce, if that’s what you want.’”
But instead of divorcing in the boring, paperwork-heavy style of western courts, Feldman makes a dramatic exit. I have no idea why she finds this necessary. She tells us that she rents a tiny Kia and fills it with garbage bags of her belongings and her kid. Poof, she is gone.
“I changed my phone numbers and didn’t tell anyone my new address. I couldn’t risk being tracked down. I needed some time for myself, time to settle in, time to find some sort of security.”
What about the father, Eli? Yitzy was very bonded with Eli. I know this from a lot of experience with both of them, but also, she tells us this sometimes between the lines. For instance, she admits Eli was willing to move to Rockland County in part so he could spend more time with their baby. She also tells us that she isn’t bonded with her son at all until she leaves. “We have to get to know each other…I feel as if I wasn’t allowed to be his mother until now…” She enlists the three or four-year-old kid to play into this new reality: “Yitzy is like a new person…We sleep in the queen bed I purchased after I left, and before we fall asleep, we have lovely conversations. He worries about me, and I can tell, by the way he gives me impulsive compliments.”
What is happening here? From her telling, it seems she has kidnapped her child without saying a word to the father! And to make it even more chilling, she is suddenly besties with the kid, burdening him with an emotional load in no way appropriate for a four-year-old.
Eli’s version of this event is just as unsettling. In 2012 I sat down with him in my dingy basement apartment and interviewed him, hoping to put his story out there. The project fell apart at some point, but I still have the notes. I have several pages worth, but here is his account of when Feldman left:
“At the time she left, she worked at Conde’s Nest until late at night and her car turned over on the way home. I got a babysitter for Yitzy and ran to the hospital to her but she was very angry, yelling, ‘Why did God do this?’ and she didn’t want me to stay.
That weekend she said she wanted to go to her mother for Shabbes for a break. On Friday morning Yitzy woke up, came in like every day, bursting open the door…he ran with his fat tiny little baby feet onto the bed. It was the last normal morning.
I went to work, and I got a text from her that said ‘I left. Yitzy is napping in the car.’ She never did this before. I flew home, ran right to Yitzy’s bedroom and found his entire closet empty. Nothing was there.
Air left my body. I collapsed in my own hands. I don’t remember how long I was standing there, but I remember the next time I walked out of the house it was dark. I don’t remember for a few days what happened. She stopped communicating with me. She didn’t let me talk to Yitzy. I kept asking about him. She kept saying ‘he’s fine, he’s distracted.’
Finally after a week or two she agreed to meet me with Yitzy at a restaurant. I got there; I saw that she cut off Yitzy’s side-curls. I didn’t say anything about it. I didn’t care about the side-curls, but it bothered me that she wasn’t telling me what was going on. She knew I’d never raise my voice in front of him, so she made sure to talk about the important things in front of him. She said she wanted different things in life. Right away she started talking about child support, and things I didn’t know about started to fall on me. It was like someone comes in with a ready plan in a folder, marketed, with business cards, and I’m the one who gets bombarded with all these things. I felt very lost. So I said ‘Do you want to go to someone, maybe we can work this out? Maybe we can compromise?’
I never missed my child more than I missed him at that time. From when he was born, I put him to sleep. I put him to sleep 98% of the time, not because I had to…but because I wanted to. To this day, whenever I have him, he falls asleep with me. I go into bed and he’s like, ‘You’re coming to cozy with me?’ and I’m like—yeah…I’m coming.
This is what bothers me. I had my child, basically she took that away from me. Now I’ll have a child who will never forgive us for what we did.”
So that’s how it ended. After a week or two of her silence, they agreed to split custody. Eli had all weekends and summers. This is how I met him in 2010, both of us single parents of boys the same age.
Eli didn’t talk much about his wife who left him. At the time, I was newly divorced, and I moved to Rockland County with my son and began modernizing (driving, college, ooh la la!) Eli’s son and mine were great friends. I loved Yitzy; he had the most contagious giggle fits. Two years of really lovely times before the book hit.
Eli told me that, “until the book came out, I did not believe that I would have more than a page in the it.” As it turned out, he was the main villain.
So many of us were incensed. Was it that she lied? A fact checker would have given her Pinocchio’s nose, sure, but that wouldn’t show the flaw. There was something else. It was the skewed manner in which everything was framed.
Take the pieces I culled to tell you her narrative. She doesn’t relay these moments as forward progression in a march toward freedom. She always frames them as more proof that she’s oppressed, abused, a victim, a hero.
When she befriends the intellectual Mindy and starts sharing a love for reading, we don’t see her start to expand and connect with kindred spirits, but rather, she relays the story to show how even the brightest are crushed, because in the end Mindy is an “empty shell of her former self” (fuck off). When she gets gifts during her engagement, she is incensed that the jewelry draws too much attention to itself, thus proving how appallingly peasant-like these Hasidic people are. When her husband sprinkles flower pedals on the bed as per Hollywood movies, she sees it as a betrayal, because she decides that—feh—he must have gotten the idea from a sibling. When he cleans the kitchen, it’s to get sex. When he doesn’t stop her from attending college, it’s because he is greedy and wants her to make a bunch of money for him. Also, he is only concerned that she should still toil in domestic labor (because he asks if she will still be there to pick Yitzy up from daycare). When he wants to kiss slowly, she pretends to go along with it, but starts biting him, feeling fully justified somehow in a counter attack. When he talks to his sister, he is choosing his sister over her. Even when her obstetrician is nice to her, she perceives it as some kind of nasty indicator that the doctor just wants to suck up to her because as a Hasidic woman, she’ll be a return customer. When she has a car accident, she believes her husband is fully guilty because he did not change the tires before, and she is further convinced of her suffering when he refuses to accept responsibility.
Getting inside Feldman’s head is a character study of dark, empty space. Everything is a vendetta, everything, and it’s all such an intense, dramatic, imaginary crisis that she carries everyone away with it.
This is why readers ended up confused about how she got custody. Feldman breathlessly tells us that on the internet people “warn me that no rabbinical court will let me leave with my son. Even if I were to keep all the laws, I still wouldn’t be considered devout enough to be a parent to my child.”
Notice that she doesn’t even say that she can’t leave with her son. She only quotes from people who say things that fit with her emotional reality. She writes:
“Their comments don’t scare me. I know that I am different from these other women, that I have something they didn’t have. I don’t know how, and I don’t know when, but one day I will be free.”
She probably believes at this point that she is facing down a mountain, as she has a victim mentality. Let’s unpack this with clear eyes: Feldman tells us about her risk by quoting from second-hand sources. Her sources are anonymous internet commentators. Okay, so are they right? They are certainly right that a woman in the clutch of the Hasidic system can almost never detach herself from it and come out whole with her relationship with her children intact. This is because she is economically dependent, socially isolated, and extremely reliant on the community’s educational institutions to help raise the kids. And if her kids are older and have bonds solely in the community, speak Yiddish, and are concerned about status, they become the real reason a woman can’t leave.
Feldman’s situation was not that. She had a young child she was raising in a modern community. Her husband did not use religion and religious authorities to control her (sadly, this is the case for women too often). She had a car and license. She went to college. She had gentile friends. She didn’t even look like “one of us” anymore. By her own telling, she was pretty much out. The only connection she still had to the conservative Hasidic world was that she was still in her arranged marriage. She can get divorced. We are Jews not Catholics; even the internet knows that!
Feldman imagines herself to face the same beasts as women much less fortunate than her. When she leaves her marriage by kidnapping her son, she congratulates herself for being braver and better than those pushover oppressed women. She doesn’t acknowledge the advantages she has. She lets the reader think she climbed some mountain that wasn’t there.
She is not a feminist hero. By pretending the undoable is doable, Feldman perpetuates the myth that a woman’s freedom is a matter of her individual resolve. She doesn’t acknowledge that some women will lose custody, that some women can’t pack a Kia up and go. She scoffs at them; she says none of them want big things, only she does, that’s why she left. Her “feminism” is the kind that pretends the solutions lie in individual choices. It is toxic because it implies that, if only women were girdling up in resolve, they’d have it all too. Her world is one of no compassion, of soulless ambition, no moral center. It fills me with dread to imagine that I left the Hasidic community for this value system. It makes me want to pack up a Kia, kidnap a child, and escape it.
In so many ways, my experiences are very different from Feldman’s. However, what we have in common is that we had certain options, aspirations, and advantages that made our exoduses possible. I often try to remember that my needs and fortunes are different from those of my classmates. It helps me put other women’s situations in perspective, and to respect their decisions, even when I have a lot of issues with the patriarchy under which they function. Falsehoods and misrepresentation aside, the real issue that lies at the heart of Unorthodox is Feldman’s lack of empathy for Hasidic women who do not take the same route she did. In dismissing other women as pushovers, Feldman simultaneously dismisses the patriarchy’s role in keeping many women in the fold and her own numerous advantages. Blinded by her own assumed victimhood, anger, and perhaps shame, Feldman creates a world of blame that casts feminism aside for the sake of her own glorification.