[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
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).