So I read Deborah Feldman’s book “UNorthodox”

It was released by Simon and Schuster recently and was a pretty quick but interesting read. Feldman grew up in Brooklyn as part of the Williamsburg Hasidic community and has written a memoir based on that life and the steps she ultimately took within her life to surpass those mentally crippling limitations.

It was eye-opening in terms of me learning more about that stricter version of Judaism. I hadn’t known women were expected to shave all their hair off after marriage and wear wigs or some other head covering. There’s a point in the book where it’s discovered that natural hair wigs purchased for these Satmar women were made of hair that Hindus had shaved off themselves as part of their own worshiping ceremonies and the Rabbi demands all the wigs be burned. God truly forbid they wear hair that belonged to those who worship false idols. But God also forbid they be allowed to keep and style their own hair – it might give the men Ideas. It seems the men have enough Ideas as it is.

Men and women being kept separate in temple is something I might have known about before but the purity laws that keep the temple and thus men “safe” from menstruating women seem outright laughable, even though it’s clear they take that shit seriously. Feldman describes the ritual of self-testing for bleeding and rules about bringing one’s underwear to the Rabbi if one’s not sure the stains are blood. Once married to the man chosen by one’s parents, there are even more rituals and rules to abide by – special purification baths to take and men not allowed to touch anything a bleeding woman has touched. As an outsider looking in, it all sounds so damned ludicrous. What she describes about her sexual anxiety on top of all that wound up being the most fascinating part of the book, I have to admit. I thought I had hang-ups…

She didn’t come out of the experience a complete atheist but she grew to understand why her mother felt compelled to leave that world (she was gay) and her life-long secret love of secular books eventually helped her realize she wanted a better education for herself and her son than they’d otherwise get. Her relationship with her husband was also poor (not just because of the bedroom problems) and it seems like it was a fairly easy decision for both of them to divorce.

I’m not much for reading memoirs. The brain can be a terrible place to store memories. The bulk of them wind up flawed and changed by memories of experiences that occur later, either our own, or those we hear of from other people. No matter how “true” a story might feel to the writer, it’s up to the reader to take it with a grain of salt. (One “reader” goes a step further; RS has a whole blog dedicated to exposing Feldman as a fraud, and provides different background to some of the stories she shares in her book.)

In terms of the book itself, I’ve read a lot of books and this one feels green. Amateurish, I mean. 25 she might be, but a lot of writers got a start younger than that and their first books are a lot more polished. It might be on account of the style she chose to write it, mind you. It’s a present-tense first person kind of thing so that while she’s describing events that might have occurred when she was nine, it’s written like she is that age, writing pages in a juvenile diary. I agree with the opinion of The Forward blogger, Debra Nussbaum Cohen, too:

Whatever the truth, something about Feldman still seems very young, though she is now 25 and the mother of a nearly 6-year-old son. In photos in the Post, posing in a sequined, sleeveless mini-dress, and in pictures on the ABC News website, where she sits on a park bench, wearing high heels, tight jeans and holding a cigarette in her hand, she looks like nothing so much as a young girl posing the way she thinks grownups are supposed to.

She reminds me of 13-year-old girls I see at some bat mitzvahs, teetering around on stiletto heels and wearing minis so short they can’t safely sit down.

I’m trying to think back to what I was like when I was 25. I think I was probably something of a poser, too, without enough life experience to see what parts of my behaviour merely reflected those around me and what came directly from myself. I think that’s a struggle everyone goes through at some point, even if they don’t realize it.

Now living on the Upper East Side with her son, she said there is nothing she misses about life in the Satmar community. “Everything I miss I can have,” she said. “If I want cholent, I make cholent. I have it all now. I am just exhilarated by it. There is not even within me even one shred of regret.”

If she feels like she has to prove something, I hope she realizes she only has to prove it to herself. It does take some daring to write about yourself, I’ll admit. I’m not that bold. Then again, a lot of what I’ve done is boring and quite forgettable. Truthfully, I don’t think I could remember enough childhood events to fill a chapter, let alone nine of them. UNremarkable. That’d be the title of mine…

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2 Responses to So I read Deborah Feldman’s book “UNorthodox”

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