If you don’t know Deborah Feldman yet, you will soon. (Read here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) With a publicity onslaught rarely seen on the arrival of a new writer (The View!) we are bound to hear more of her in the upcoming weeks. In short, Deborah Feldman grew up in what many would call the misogynistic, insular world of Satmar Hasidim. Married at 17, Feldman then left the community to live the life of an independent single mother in NYC. Hermemoir , entitled Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots is not necessarily unique, her stye, at certain points well written, at certain points displaying basic mistakes of craft, both merit some attention, especially in the young adult crowd, but its ferocious reception strikes me as curious and worthy of analysis. I believe the hoopla speaks to a certain cultural shallowness in our understanding of religion and our definition of freedom.
For generations now, we’ve been living in a time in which religious transformation signifies somewhat the norm. Pulling apart the pieces, or dismantling, or wiping off the dirt of your religious personality (the different metaphors matter,) involves inner turmoil. Not to say the transition must entail sadness, or a mourning period, but a religious connection, especially one which entrenches itself deep in your inner psyche, requires precise, long surgery to remove, and surgery is always a trauma of sorts. Consequently, despite their prevalence, stories of religious transformation can be interesting, insightful, harrowing when approached with humility, sophistication, and a deep understanding of the larger mechanics at work, an understanding that requires time, thought, and patience.
I know that in the world of books, just as in every other world sensationalism sells. The masses seek out gossip, especially of the insulated religious kind (who amongst us doesn’t enjoy a small romp on the high horse of self righteousness, especially against religious extremists?) and young adult audiences just want to know that no matter the situation you can do it, on your own, you can achieve and accomplish your dreams, which is no small lesson, and one that bears repeating. For me though, I know that Feldman can accomplish much more than a simplistic vision of unambiguous stories that appeal to something visceral in us all.
I met with Feldman before and after I read her story. Sometimes, I wonder about the choice to publish the book. Feldman wrote her memoir in the immediate wake of tearing away from Satmar, and because of that, the choice to publish this book strikes me as choice in the infancy to childhood stage of religious transition. It feels as if Feldman forgot not to send that angry letter we write, and then put in our desk drawer, and wait a week to send until our anger abates. The end of her book displays a picture of her, sitting on a bench, looking flirtatious, in pants, while smoking a cigarette….Freedom! Albeit, an empty looking one.
Besides the book itself, the publicity surrounding of the memoir is the type that makes me sad the way the insistence of a GoDaddy.com commercial makes me sad. Some of the publicity stunts, and some of what she says in interviews sound downright sensationalist and self aggrandizing. For example, the hyper-sexualized NY Post spread reeks somewhat of an antiquated idea that the antidote to the obsession with modesty displayed by Hasidic sects lies in the opposite choice of focusing even more on sexuality, which in the end of the day, still treats women as an objects. I feel no need to defend the Satmar community, and I don’t believe, necessarily, in the worry of airing dirty laundry. However, I feel that this book deserved a greater gestation period to mature. It bespeaks little understanding of the conceptual background from which she came, or of the life she chose as a replacement. Feldman writes from the early stage of religious transformations, a world in which her personal wisdom is something taken for granted, not earned.
In private conversations, though, Feldman speaks intelligently, almost in a lamenting tone about the price necessary to pay to sell books, mainly the sensationalist tone adopted in the latter part of the book title: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, or the title of the NY Post piece: “Woman Breaks Free!”, or the title of an ABC News piece: Hasidic Hell. For the most part I choose to assume that her publicist desired to create a public persona of Feldman as some kind of forward thinking, independent woman/sex symbol because otherwise, I don’t know how to spin a desire to see oneself as Kardashian-esque as sophisticated, or forward thinking. In fact some of the NY Post interview smacks of a certain kind of childish understanding of freedom as the freedom to do whatever you want as opposed to the freedom to search for your own version of the good life.
When you read the book, or talk to her, or read one of her interviews, you cannot discount her courage, her vision, her tenacity, independence, and bravery, but in many ways, these come off as largely the sounds and rumblings of a once powerless, victimized teenager, raging against her machine, instead of a sophisticated, calm look at an important transformation, or the larger social issues at work. Part of the immaturity stems from the realization that just because you break free from a repressive culture doesn’t mean that you immediately, or even slowly, become a different person. Tact, nuance, and subtlety come from a long time of struggling with ambivalence, the ambivalence of modern living.
I think the larger problem will lie in the inevitable, staid, tired cultural backlash. Some will see her story as a heroic escape that speaks of the larger ills of religion; a true American hero, right here! To them, the simple response is that this story, worn out with time, demands complication, not repetition. Others will see it as airing dirty laundry for narcissistic purposes, which I do disagree with because these types of stories do deserve their space, but both of these viewpoints stagnate our conversation about Hasidim. We treat them as angels or demons but never as humans.
Few books get written with the warmth and wit of an insider, detailing the range of experiences, both horrific and holy, the devotion, kindness of its members along with the insularity, intolerance, and mistrust. The world needs less of a tabloidesque, pandering view that caters to our need to feel superior, and more of balanced, nuanced understanding of that which we find strange, and yes, perhaps oppressive. I know, or trust, that Feldman, a talented writer, will take on this more mature task with time. In fact, I know that she hopes to open up a center for similar Hasidic women with some of the profit from her books. Perhaps the ends do justify the means. Regardless, for now, we get to sit back and watch the show. Good Luck, Deborah.