When I was hired by my current congregation, I was 31 years old. Reform. Female. and VERY pregnant. This type of rabbinical leadership just wouldn’t go over well in the Satmar ultra-Orthodox community Deborah Feldman describes in her controversial book UnOrthodox–
which I read with voyourestic (though not literary) pleasure. As a Reform rabbi, I often answer questions concerning ritual and worship with: “Sure, we can try it that way. There are lots of ways to do things in our tradition.” And yet, although I am a proud Reform Jew, I’ve always seen a lot to admire in the Orthodox world- the spirit in communal celebrations and family Shabbat rituals, and the confident knowledge of our traditions and love for Jewish community. After all, I wrote approvingly of many aspects of Jewish life portrayed in this book focusing on the Chabad community for my application to rabbinical school. Now, Feldman’s book is not at all well-written- and while I happen to be quite a literary snob, I couldn’t stop reading it. Sure, I understand that this story portrays only one experience in the ultra-Orthodox Satmar Chasidic community- she happened to grow up in an unfortunate family circumstance, with absentee parents and a home devoid of affection.
I can’t judge the whole Satmar experience based on her book, but what I did gain from her observations was the community’s fear of letting any secular influences, or any non Ultra-Orthodox Jewish influences, into their lives. They fear that even one small indiscretion towards a less stringent Jewish lifestyle could lead them completely off the one right path. At one point, the rabbi banned real-hair wigs (over the womens shaved heads) because wearing real human hair seemed too immodest. The rabbis kept issuing more and more extreme decrees for their community in order to ward off God’s wrath. Feldman’s grandfather teaches her that God punished Jews with the Holocaust because of those who assimilated and/or acculturated with their greater communities. Feldman’s community seeks to become even more machmir (strict) then their ancestors in the old country, in order to evade future punishment. No outside cultural influence are allowed- Feldman often snuck out to local libraries to read innocent books such as “Little Women.” And it was THIS juxtaposition that I wanted to hear more about. How did it make her feel to be trapped in her world once she began to learn that other women had different choices?
She concludes the book, in which she leaves her community, very quickly- and that is exactly the part I needed more details about! Now that she has experienced the challenges of a secular education and the joys of freedom for herself and her son, does she want to make changes in her old community? How will she live her life as a Jew now that she is not a part of her fundamentalist community? Will she be able to rest easy knowing that other girls might feel trapped just as she did, and do not receive an equal education? Or does she believe that this ultra-Orthodox life is great for some people, and that the community should stay as is? Was this book “good for the Jews?” Is that important? For one thing,this book definitely makes me grateful for my welcoming community that hired me and recognizes me as their religious leader. But I wish there wasn’t such a disconnect between these two worlds- sometimes it feels like we are too totally different religions, and and this memoir, as skewed as it might be, brings these jarring differences to the surface.
Rose Kowel Durbin is the rabbi of Knesseth Israel Synagogue in Gloversville, NY. She currently needs some reading suggestions for her very first weekend away from her 14-month old toddler- now that she has read UnOrthodox, what do you suggest next?