I have a weakness for memoirs. I have a huge weakness for memoirs by individuals who have left insular religious communities. Decades ago, I read Paul Hendrickson’s 1983 memoir Seminary: A Search. After that I was hooked. More recently, over the last five years I’ve read and enjoyed Kyria Abrahams’s I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing, Veronica Chater’s Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family and Christine Rosen’s My Fundamentalist Education: A Memoir of a Divine Girlhood. These first person accounts of growing up in closed-off and restrictive religious worlds and the frequently painful process of questioning, challenging and finally leaving these closed communities always makes for reading that’s both intellectually stimulating and personally inspiring. Because I love these kind of memoirs so much, I’m always on the lookout for more of them.
I’d seen reviews and mentionings of Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots floating around the Internet for the past several years. When I found an available copy through my public library I decided to take a chance on it, hoping it was one of those “leaving a religious community” kind of memoirs I love to read. After burning through Unorthodox in what must have been only a few days. I’m glad I did. Not only does Feldman write well, she does a fine job telling a unique and interesting story about religious community that few outsiders know anything about.
Even for someone brought up in an extreme Orthodox Jewish community, Feldman’s story is a unique one. Her parents met through an arranged marriage, with her English mother moving to America to marry the man who would end up being Feldman’s father. Not long after Feldman’s birth, her parents would divorce resulting in her mother leaving both her religion and family behind. Also about the same time, her extended family came to the realization her father suffered from some sort of mental disability, making him reliant on the charity of others. Left essentially an orphan, Feldman would be raised by her relatives in a strict Satmar Orthodox community in New York’s Williamsburg neighborhood. At 17 she was married off in an arranged marriage and gave birth to a son a two years later. But soon she grew disillusioned with both her marriage and above all, life in the Satmar world. With little support and almost no secular education under her belt, she enrolled in college. Provided with a decent, secular education and surrounded by a wide range of intelligent and supporting individuals Feldman finally felt free and confident to live her life however she wanted to live it.
If you end up reading Feldman’s Unorthodox, (either because of, or in spite of what I’ve written here) and you too end up enjoying it, there’s two other books you should read. The first one, probably to no one’s surprise, is Chaim Potok’s classic American novel The Chosen. The other book, only slightly less well-known than Potok’s novel, is Warren Kozak’s The Rabbi of 84th Street: The Extraordinary Life of Haskel Besser. Of course if that’s not enough and you want more, according to Amazon there’s whole batch of memoirs by former Orthodox Jews out there just waiting to be read, including Feldman’s follow-up memoir Exodus. So don’t be surprised if you see more of these kind of memoirs featured on my blog.