Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Escape from Religious Oppression: Medieval Judaism at its worst

[note: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher]

Recently Oprah Winfrey, in her seemingly endless need to manufacture cursory and superficial religious themes, spent a day (24 full hours!!) with an Hasidic family. She aired the show on her failing network, declaring the Hasidic culture to be remarkable - indeed endorsing its apparent family focused, culturally rich and loving life style. One can pretty much surmise that had she spent 24 hours in the Central American jungle with Jim Jones’ cult that she’d have been similarly moved.

Coming from an ultra reformed Jewish family, I was always remotely aware of the orthodox Jewish (AKA Hasidic) community. But it wasn’t until reading “Unorthodox” that I realized how a people who have borne so much oppression and are oft thought of as educated, can themselves form a culture that is so utterly oppressive and bereft of respect for broadening the mind..

When one thinks of religious fanaticism, cultish fundamentalist Christianity and Islam typically come to mind. This book has broadened my perspective considerably. Deborah Feldman’s memoir is a journey though the mental, emotional and physical enslavement of a religious sect ensconced in ancient (and no so ancient) fundamentalist Judaism. It was a real eye opener. One can only wonder how anyone raised in such an insulated culture could retain the strength and courage to test the limits, and eventually break free.

The product of a mentally impaired Hasidic father, and a mother who abandoned her as a child, the author recounts her upbringing by ultra religious Hasidic grandparents who escaped the Holocaust... an event they attribute to God’s punishment for Jews leading secular lives and abandoning the unyielding constraints of Talmudic law.

The author’s mind and body and spirit are incessantly assaulted by demeaning modesty obsessed dress codes including head shaving and mandatory wigs, peculiar feminine hygienic laws, sexual repression, demonization of the secular world including the English language. Just harboring the concept of assimilation into American culture is considered a fall from grace, an unforgivable insult to God.

Cult like in its inflexibility, this culture practices self imposed alienation from anything outside their sect and section of Brooklyn, NY. It is a sub-culture with a quasi-caste system, where other Hasidic sects are looked down upon; non-Hasidic Jews are dismissed as heretics and gentiles are openly reviled. A male dominated society where women are treated as little more than valued chattel, baby making machines, and housekeepers; are shunned as unclean during their menstrual cycle; and where a simple stroll on the sidewalk is fraught with the danger of touching or making eye contact with a man. This is a culture that gives rise to punishing a child’s masturbation by mutilation and even unreported murder, and turns a blind eye to their pious kinsman’s serial child molesting ... preferring to let God mete out judgment.

That anyone could find the courage to escape from the drabness of this religiously driven archaic medieval existence and emerge into the light to live as a modern, functioning, motivated, and well adjusted adult - is a tribute to human perseverance.

This is a fascinating account of personal triumph against the odds, albeit, there is some repetition and focus on otherwise mundane details. The writing style is unremarkable, the narrative is rather flat. It stirs the curiosity, not the emotion.


What’s of additional interest is the reaction to this book from the Hasidic community. I try to give my reviews fairly, unfettered by any personal agenda. I'm more often than not successful in doing so. Unfortunately, Amazon reviews have become a sort of peculiar battle ground where people feel compelled to state their cause and defend their ideology irrespective of the literary work's value, and whether or not the book was actually read. Some of the reviews I read are so inarticulate, so venomous, and so transparently agenda driven that it does more to discredit the reviewer and their cause, than the author and her book. “Unorthodox” was just released last week and is only garnering 2 ½ stars because of the Hasidic community’s campaign of outrage.

What you'll see there is a concerted and well orchestrated effort by the Hasidic community to punish one of their "wayward sheep" apostates, and defend their chosen lifestyle. It's a vindictiveness that comes from a victim mentality, an elitist perspective of ones group, and a need to mete out retribution to those who expose the least attractive traits of their sole focus in life. The Mormons, Muslims, Catholics and the Scientologists exemplify that mindset, why not the Hasidic community? If anything it tends to reinforce and give credibility to Feldman's memoir..

I rate it 3 ½ stars. (4 on amazon).


NewEnglandBob said...

I have not read this book, but I grew up in Rockland County, New York and there was/still is a Hasidic community there that was 15 miles from my home. I saw some of what you described and heard about a lot more. These are not nice people. They have been taught to rear large families and even though they earn money, they rarely pay taxes and go on welfare, even those who are millionaires. Their homes are disgustingly filthy and they despise outsiders, even Rabbis who are not of their sect.

Anonymous said...

So many 1 star reviews by many people claiming to have "read" the book, even though it's not out. How dishonest, and unfortunately typical. I HAVEN'T read the book, but I think I'm justified in downvoting these fraudsters.

- Fastthumbs.

Joyce said...

Wow. I had no idea. I had always thought (and was obviously duped as Oprah was [and no, I didn't see the episode she did but will look it up on the internet and watch it if it's available]) that the Hasidic community was obviousy strict, but I thought they were strict in the keeping of their traditions, were very family oriented, and basically good and even kind citizens. I'm shocked by what you shared from the book and this woman's experience and I am frightened and concerned for the children being raised in this environment.

You said it best when you wrote, "That anyone could find the courage to escape from the drabness of this religiously driven archaic medieval existence and emerge into the light to live as a modern, functioning, motivated, and well adjusted adult - is a tribute to human perseverance."

I wish her all the best and am amazed by her strength and incredibly strong will to break free. Since I have yet to read the book (although I'll be googling it and Deborah Feldman), based on the small amount you highlighted from her experience, it left me both horrified and wanting to stand up and cheer for Deborah -- not for only escaping with her sanity intact but escaping with her obvious intellect and incredible courage. Hopefully, some of those caught in this nightmare of an existance will be able to get a copy of this book into their hands and find the same courage that this brave woman did.

Thanks for this review and for opening my eyes and giving me some insight into a world that I obviously knew nothing about. Well done, Bart.

Dromedary Hump said...

Bob...the community you reference is near where Deborah Feldman moved when she married and left Brooklyn with her husband.

Fastthumbs, the publisher is trying to get the attacks removed from amazon. I doubt they'll have much luck. They are some scummy people.

Joyce, Thanks for the comment. yeah... I never held any animosity for Hasidim, disgust for their dress and hygienic habits, but not anger. But between what I learned from this book, and what I see them doing on amazon with those phony reviews, I have zero respect for them now.

Deborah is divorced, 22 now I think, living her new life happily in NYC with her son, and attending Sarah Lawrence. She's a budding author with some promise.

Shaw Kenawe said...

What is it about the human psyche that compels people to enter into such dehumanizing religious cults?

Life is difficult enough and fraught with so much sadness and stress, why do religionists heap more suffering on themselves?

I've never understood it. And yet almost every cult has within it even more strident cultists who seem not to be satisfied with the normal problems and heartaches life presents to humans, so they invent and impose more, and very often worse punishments and afflictions on themselves and their children.

That sort of fanatacism is, IMO, a mental disorder.

Their ideas of gods and what it means to serve them is truly sick.

rose bush said...

I read "Unorthodox"by Deborah Feldman myself and found it an inspiring book. It is a shame that so many years of her life were wasted in this suffering.