Ellis Shuman

An Unorthodox Book Review

The controversy surrounding an escape from Satmar Hasidism makes for a bestseller.

Deborah Feldman, author of the New York Times bestselling memoir Unorthodox (Simon & Schuster, February 2012), was born and raised in the Satmar Hasidic community of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York. Her memoir, subtitled “The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots,” is a compelling read. One can’t help but feel for the author as she seeks the freedom to think, live, and act independently, and not according to the dictates of an insular, oppressive world.

The book is controversial, and controversy helps sell books. An exposé of the way women are treated in the Satmar community is bound to result in a backlash of denial and alternative depictions of that life. The publication of Unorthodox, however, has led to some serious charges. Media reports and blogs suggest that the author fabricated certain elements of her story, similar to what James Frey did in A Million Little Pieces.

Who are the Satmar Hasids?

If you’re expecting Unorthodox to provide you with a true insight into the world of Satmar Hasidism, you’re in for a disappointment. Outsiders reading the book won’t fully understand what Satmar Hasids look like or what they wear. Anytime the author mentions an article of clothing unique to the members of the community, she uses the Yiddish word. If you are familiar with these terms, you can picture the shtreimels worn by the men and the shpitzels worn by the women. Young boys grow up with payos; it helps to know what that means.

It also helps to come to the book with a basic understanding of the customs and practices of ultra-Orthodox Jewry. The author describes dancing at her wedding: “I make an enormous effort to keep up my smile as everyone insists on taking their turn whirling me around the dance floor.” Everyone? Hardly likely. Unless there is something very liberal about Satmar Hasids that I don’t know about, one can assume that the only whirling the bride did was with her female guests, sequestered in a separate room from the groom and his friends.

We get a total of three paragraphs describing the Satmars’ opposition to the Zionist state of Israel, and a brief mention about the infighting between the Teitelbaum brothers for control of the sect. Satmar philosophy, teachings and traditions are not part of the narrative, but that’s okay, as Unorthodox is the story of the life of Deborah Feldman.

Is the story true?

Is the story true? Spoiler alert ahead – although some of these spoilers have no connection with what is written in the book. Charges against the author are detailed on a blog “dedicated to expose the lies of Deborah Feldman and reveal the bias of her publisher Simon & Schuster” and published in mainstream media like the New York Post, the New York Daily News, and the New York Jewish Week. These charges include the fact that the author has a sister (never mentioned in Unorthodox); that her mother did not abandon her as a toddler but left the family years later; and that the alleged mutilation and murder of a young boy in the community and the subsequent cover-up of the crime never actually took place.

A statement sent by Feldman’s publicist to the New York Daily News in March said, “Deborah Feldman’s ‘Unorthodox’ is an inspiring memoir that recounts, from the author’s perspective, her experiences as a child growing up in the Satmar community, and her eventual departure from that life. We are confident that ‘Unorthodox’ accurately presents her deeply personal recollections of that journey.”

We’ll leave it that – the author’s recollections of a harrowing journey from a dysfunctional family through an arranged, disastrous marriage as a teenager, to eventual freedom from the restraints imposed on her lifestyle. Worth reading? Yes. It doesn’t matter if this story is unconditionally accurate or embellished to some degree. We root for Deborah Feldman as she escapes her past to make a better life for herself and for her young son.

About the Author
Ellis Shuman made aliya to Jerusalem as a teenager, served in the IDF, was a founding member of a kibbutz, and now lives on Moshav Neve Ilan. Ellis is the author of ‘The Burgas Affair’ – a crime thriller set in Israel and Bulgaria; ‘Valley of Thracians’ - a suspense novel set in Bulgaria; and 'The Virtual Kibbutz' - a collection of short stories. His writing has appeared in The Times of Israel, The Huffington Post, The Jerusalem Post, Israel Insider, and on a wide range of Internet websites. Ellis lived with his wife for two years in Bulgaria, and blogs regularly about Israel, Bulgaria, books, and writing.