Feldman-Deborah, Memoir, Non-Fiction, social commentary

#557 Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman

Unorthodox by Deborah FeldmanUnorthodox by Deborah Feldman

Deborah grew up in a land of rules. Everyone else was just like her and everyone else knew what she did, or didn’t do, as the case sometimes was. Deborah knew no other life, well, except through books. She knew she would grow up, get married at seventeen or eighteen years old, and then start having children. She would shave her head. She would wear a wig. She would submit completely to her husband, whoever he may be. That was Deborah’s life.

Deborah belonged to a Hasidic sect in New York. The entire neighborhood was Hasidic. It was just how things were. Deborah’s life was made more difficult for the fact that her mother had left the community and her father had a mental handicap. She lived with her grandparents, who were good people, and more open-minded than some. Deborah grew up in her orthodox life as she snuck books from the library and the bookstore. She came to realize that she didn’t exactly fit in, but this was her life.

As Deborah neared eighteen, a marriage was arranged. She went through all the pomp and circumstance of a Jewish orthodox marriage. She shaved her hair. She wore a wig. Married life was not was she expected it to be. There were issues. Deborah did not know about many things that had been expected of her. She had received no sex education at all while growing up. She hadn’t known such a thing existed. Her husband did not love her. He often was impatient with her and tried to press rules upon her because his family thought she should behave a certain way.

After Deborah had a son, she let her hair down a little, really. She grew her hair out, even though she was not supposed to. She quit going to the Mikvah. She got into college under the guise of going to business classes. She finally made the decision to leave. She did not want her son growing up in such an environment. Deborah left because she wasn’t orthodox.

What I liked

I do not know a lot about Hasidic Jews and this book was definitely a good learning experience for me. The descriptions of the Mikvah are very much like another religious tradition I know of. You can see where, at one point, many religions come from the same beginning.

Extreme sects of religions are fascinating because you look at it from the outside and you don’t know how the members could ever put up with it. None of these religions started this way. None of these religions were super strict nor did they monitor a member’s every move. That only came later when over zealous leaders came to power. Practices and habits came to be seen as doctrine, when they were really just preferences, not the word of God. God never told a woman to shave all her hair off.

Religion isn’t bad, although at times it can certainly be seen that way. Religion is something that guides people in their lives, but sometimes people take something good and pervert it because they’re not gods, they’re people who are subject to the temptations of the world.

What I didn’t like

I have read modern-day stories about women living in somewhat less common religions who have similar experiences to Deborah’s. A certain way of life is expected. Certain ceremonies are expected that may sometimes make a woman feel powerless and humiliated. It’s not just Hasidic religions that do this. There are a multitude of modern religions where women are basically treated as property. They are made to think they can do nothing else with their lives. They are made to think that they just have to shut up and take whatever it is that is commanded of them, not by God, but by a leader, or their husband, who says that he is acting in the name of God. Yes, every time I have read these types of memoirs it’s a man doing all the commanding.

There are some ways that Deborah’s story feels a little too close to home, not that I was raised in a fundamentalist religion, but there are behaviors of the people around her that I have seen in the people around me, and, quite frankly, it creeps me out.

I am a little incensed that some religion would command that a woman shave her hair. Command it. Seriously? Really, you know the Bible says that a woman’s hair is her glory, right? And that’s not in the New Testament, that’s the Old Testament. Commanding a woman to shave her head is just another way that a religion tries to control how a person looks. If everyone looks the same, or their vanity is taken away, what makes them stand out? They might as well realize they’re just like everyone else right? Because that’s all the matters, looking like everyone else and obeying every command that comes your way? It’s a form of manipulation and brain washing, essentially.

God doesn’t overly care about what you’re wearing. You’re supposed to live by his commandments, but it doesn’t really matter what you look like while you’re doing it. Capisce? Comprende?


Deborah, if you ever read this–I am so freaking proud of you for leaving and for getting an education, many women raised in similar scenarios just aren’t that lucky.

Weigh In

How often do you think we walk by people living in situations similar to Deborah’s without even realizing it?

What do you think Deborah will tell her son about her past life and his heritage?


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