“Unorthodox” – Deborah Feldman

Having been too impatient & having watched the Netflix series of “Unorthodox” first, I was definitely in for a positive surprise with this book. After overcoming the annoying fact that I wouldn’t be able to get a copy with a different cover than the one with the actress Shira Haas on it, I finally gave in & ordered it anyways. This coincidence presented itself as another positive surprise to get to read through exactly that edition of the book though. It included some additional commentary from the author on the newly released Netflix series, which put it in a bit of a better light in my point of view.

“One of the biggest surprises of creating Unorthodox, the Netflix series, was how it magically attracted so many men and women with backgrounds similar to my own. They came to work as actors and extras, as consultants and translators, so that at some point being on set felt like attending an especially emotional reunion. […] The greatest triumph of Unorthodox-the-series is its ability to serve as a template for a journey that many have travelled and yet for which there is still no detailed map.” (p. 256)

My favourite parts about the Unorthodox-Netflix-series were the many details offered on the cultural details of Hasidic Jews. The set designs, the costumes, the fact that most of the dialogues were in Yiddish. If you watched it & enjoyed exactly those parts too, you’re in for a treat with Unorthodox the book, since you will get plenty of that. The addition to the series, a short episode of 20 minutes on the “Making of Unorthodox” was also an exciting reward which I only got to when I sat down to write this review 😀

Having read “Unorthodox” straight after the memoir “Educated“, I had a direct comparison of those two books & they couldn’t have been more different! Whereas “Educated” somehow felt off, distanced & cold, the author of “Unorthodox” managed to successfully propel you into the depths of her emotional world as a reader. I additionally connected with her as a person due to her love and admiration for books, which shaped her during her childhood. When characters like Alice from Wonderland, Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Harry Potter or even the closet from Narnia made their appearances, a new way of perceiving them was created. The differences between the backgrounds of children who can read these novels freely & others, that have to secretly sneak into libraries to get to them & keep hiding them in their closets or under their beds became apparent in your imagination while reading.

“Secretly, I too am waiting to fall down a hole into Wonderland, or pass through the back of a wardrobe into Narnia.” (p. 20-21)

Whereas there were subtle differences within the general style the book was written in, some parts feeling more polished than others, the story generally flowed very effortlessly. The writing managed to get you into a reading rhythm which you could follow with ease & every now & then you even got to stumble across little gems of phrases like these:

“In the field, I doze off at one point, and Golda’s words scroll down like Chinese calligraphy in the background of my dreams, then fade.” (p. 76)

“Elegant words skip reluctantly off the page to join the impoverished heroine in her crowded, teeming environment.” (p. 80)

The memoir was presented in an honest & intimate way, so that when the author spoke about the moment when she got her first period, I couldn’t help but shake my head in disbelief. This girl in an extremist Hasidic community experienced it exactly the same way as I did, growing up within a non-religious Ukrainian upbringing. “Unorthodox” shows how much we’re still behind with making girls & women feel at ease in our society. Even though the author’s story showed how dangerous the lack of education in extremely religious societies is, it also personally reminded me of how misinformed our children still are, even within our “liberated” societies.

“[W]hen I discover the thick, viscous blood in my underwear, […] I want to […] break the news of my impending death […].
‘I’m bleeding,’ I say, in my most quiet voice, waiting for her to spring into shocked action, maybe to call Hatzolah, the volunteer EMS team, to take me to the hospital.
‘Here,’ […] she takes out what looks like a long, narrow swath of cotton and hands it to me. ‘Put this in your underwear,’ she says, ‘and I will go to the pharmacy soon to get you some pads.’
I don’t understand how she can be so calm. She tells me it’s no big deal that there is a gallon of blood gushing out of me, because apparently it happens to everyone, and it’s healthy.” (p. 72)

As a female reader, certain subjects stood out to me more, such as the depreciation of women within the Hasidic community. They’re assigned the roles of birth givers, care takers & house maids, responsible for raising their children, cooking, cleaning & making sure their husband is always satisfied. On top of that, the most natural of processes of the female body, the period, is stamped as impure. As shocking as the Hasidic Jewish traditions read, it felt even more catastrophic that in the current day European societies the opinions of men are still not too far away from that. I bet that every single woman has come across at least one situation in her life when she has been deemed as disgusting by a man, him not even wanting to touch her, let alone have sexual intercourse, while she is on her period.

Niddah […] literally translates as ‘kicked aside’. A woman becomes niddah or ‘kicked aside’ as soon as one drop of blood exits her womb. When a woman is niddah, her husband cannot touch her, not even to hand her a plate of food. He cannot see any part of her body.
‘Is this okay with you?’ I want to ask. ‘Agreeing that you are dirty because you are a woman?’ I feel betrayed by all the women in my life.
After a woman stops menstruating, […] she must count seven clean days, doing twice-daily inspections with cotton cloths to make sure there is no sign of blood. When you’re pure, usually for two weeks out of the month, everything is okay. ” (p. 140)

Whereas the Netflix series was dripping with a predictable & cheesy story-line, following one American cliché after the other, there was luckily nothing of that within the memoir. My only critique would be the fact that the pace didn’t quite manage to stay consistent throughout the whole length of the book. The narrative in the beginning was filled with details, going into depth explaining the various Jewish cultural events & traditions, as well as the emotional torments the author was going through as a child. Towards the middle, the story was told in a much more hectic away. The best example being how the author described the birth of her child in just two sentences, even though it was the main goal of her marriage since its start.

“Suddenly I feel the most incredible pull in my belly, as if my very guts are being sucked out of me. The huge weight in my abdomen slides out of me in a split-second motion and my entire stomach collapses so quickly that I feel as if I just fell from a great height.” (p. 209)

By the end, the author’s voice became more descriptive and emotional once again, in order to finish off with a satisfying ending, elaborating on the reason behind the style it was written in. She explains how she kept diaries during her childhood but had to stop that practice when she got married & couldn’t risk them being discovered by her husband, if she continued hiding them at her home. The moment marking the point & time in her life when she started expressing herself in writing again, was when she started a blog on the topic of her Hasidic background. This corresponds perfectly with the way the book was written – going from parts where more emotions are offered, towards others, where there was a lack of them, as if the author couldn’t remember them as clearly without her notes on the events. It was also confirmed by the author in the afterword that she rushed to finish her manuscript at some point in order to get her story out there & take that first step into a new life.

“Writing a book was part of a much bigger plan, a necessity if I was to truly be free to start a new life with my son outside of our community. […] And somehow, four hours later, I looked up and it was midnight, and half of my manuscript was finished.” (p. 253 – 254)

That fact stays the reason why I would rate “Unorthodox” with 4 out of 5 stars, whereas still adding it onto the list of my all time favourite books. I would compare it to memoirs like “The Glass Castle” or even “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank. Even though it wasn’t as well put together as I would expect it from a 5 ★ story, it’s still a book worth being read by each & everyone. While portraying the author’s story of escaping from the Hasidic Jewish community, it still broaches topics concerning the perception of females, their rights & their liberties that are universal. It’s by depicting the “extreme” that a light is shined upon how far away we are from true “female liberty”, even in the most “advanced” societies.

“The reason Unorthodox feels so raw is because it was, because I was in a raw place while writing it, and that’s not something that can easily be re-created in retrospect.” (p. 255)

If you have already watched the series, read the book & if you are looking for something more on the topic, there is the documentary “One of Us” (available online on Netflix). It focuses on three stories of Hasidic Jews who have attempted to escape their communities. On the topic of female sexuality & liberation of rights, there is the documentary “#Female Pleasure” (I found it available to watch online on Amazon Prime) in which the author of “Unorthodox” has a leading part alongside four other main characters the movie focuses on. I haven’t watched either yet, so I can’t necessarily recommend them, but have simply come across them during my research for this review.

“Unorthodox” – Deborah Feldman

★★★★☆ (4/5)

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