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Book Review: Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots

January 18, 2013

Mark Twain once said twenty years from now we’ll be more disappointed by the things we didn’t do than the things we did do. Mr. Twain might have changed that around some had he read Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman.

I was excited when I first heard about this book and excited when I finally got it. I was interested in learning about Hasidic Judaism from an insider’s perspective and what happened in the author’s life to make her leave the faith. I wasn’t expecting a fairy story filled with tales of a wonderful life but I was certainly expecting more than what I got which was little more than a poorly written and poorly edited fierce and bitter temper tantrum. Granted, this is a memoir and not a biography and I accept that I’m reading Ms. Feldman’s subjective account of her life and the lives of the people around her, but even taking that into account, I believe that much of the information she shared with us was inaccurate and exaggerated and coming more from a sense of revenge and anger than anything else.

If Ms. Feldman’s thoughts and beliefs about Hasidic Judaism weren’t bothersome enough, they were made worse by her passing off secondhand information and hearsay as factual. And what was factual was incomplete and left us with questions: How did she just leave? What happened to her husband? Where did she suddenly get all her money? Worse, and this is probably my biggest complaint about the book, was that she had no compunctions against dragging everyone around her, family and friends included, through the mud. Sure, she changed the names of everyone in the story, but she didn’t change her name and are we really supposed to believe that in the insular society of Satmar Jews living in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York she’s writing about that people don’t know who her family is and who her friends are? I feel sad for those people who were caricatured and shamed in the book.

There was very little I liked about this book. Insights into some of the rituals around marriage and cleanliness were interesting, but that was it for me. Unfortunately, I took nothing away from this book. Worse, I learned nothing.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 18, 2013 10:57 am

    I finished this book last week, Michael, so it’s so funny that I just saw your review.

    Although I agree the book is a bit of a “temper tantrum,” I had a more positive reaction. I partly forgave the author for the rant because she is in her early twenties and is still coming to terms with what indeed sounds like an abusive, traumatic childhood. I admire her ability to get herself out. I love the fact that she snuck books into her room throughout her childhood, and this helped make her an independent thinker. And if her account of the represiveness of Hasid culture (or at least her corner of it) is at least partially true, the world needs to see this. This cult atmosphere and the treatment of women and girls reminds me of the extremist sects of Fundamentalist Mormonism. Scary stuff.

    That said, she did drag her family through the dirt, huh? I found myself wondering if it was necessary to give all the messy details of the sex issues with her husband. And from a narrative standpoint, I wanted more information about the later part of the story and how she got out.

    As with all accounts like this, I hope that readers with little knowledge of Judaism read this and think that all Orthodox Jews are like this, or that all Jews are like this, or even that all Hasidic Jews are like this (I have to admit I don’t know much about Hasidic culture, other than what I’ve read from Chaim Potok and elsewhere).


  2. January 18, 2013 11:55 am

    I’ve seen this book when I’ve been browsing at the book store and almost bought it a few times–glad to see your review. Unfortunate that it wasn’t as good as you had hoped. I thought it looked promising too. Probably won’t purchase it now, maybe I’ll wait until I can get a library copy.


  3. January 20, 2013 6:14 pm

    Mr. Fishman, I was disappointed by this book too. I am Irish Catholic and was really looking to learn about Hasidic Jews and as you remarked…..I didn’t learn much. I will admit that I skipped a few chapters at first, then went back and read them when I was finished with the book. I wish she would have explained some of the rituals and customs she talked about. She assumed, I think, that all her readers would just get it.

    Disappointed too……………



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