“I can’t help my natural impulse to talk back,” Deborah Feldman writes, describing her tendency as a child to correct a teacher’s grammatical mistake or misquotation. “It results in a world of trouble that I could easily save myself from, if I could only learn to keep quiet.” In “Unorthodox,” her memoir of growing up in the strict Satmar Jewish community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that rebellious streak eventually led to the ultimate act of defiance: leaving the community behind.
From a young age, Feldman never quite fit into a restrictive world where Yiddish is the vernacular, and women never go to college and are frequently married off in their teens. Branded an outcast because of her mother’s flight from the community and her father’s mental illness, she was raised by her grandparents and lived in constant fear of being caught reading secular books in English. (Naturally Roald Dahl’s “Matilda,” who also had to keep her bookworm ways a secret, was among her favorites.) But once her son was born, that inkling of rebellion became an urgency to escape.
Feldman seems to render this secretive community authentically; I only wish she’d spent a bit more time editing herself. The lopsided book traverses her childhood in painstaking detail, which is often redundant and overwrought. The drama picks up in Feldman’s married years, as she’s paired off with someone she’s known for 30 minutes and is expected to become a baby machine. Suddenly her personal struggle with Satmar Hasidism is no longer just about her; she can’t bear to force her son into such a restrictive world and bolts for secular New York.
I certainly understood that Feldman wanted more out of life; but in the end, I wanted more from her narration. How did she handle such a tough transition, raising a child while attending college at Sarah Lawrence? She spends so much time on the world she left — without much exploration of where she’s ended up.
The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots
Simon & Schuster. 254 pp. $23