April 26, 2012

Unorthodox, by Deborah Feldman

I just finished Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman, and I'm so cranky I just want to make a LIST of everything that made me cranky, but I'm also afraid that making that list will FAN THE FLAMES of the crankiness rather than venting them, and I will end up CRANKIER.

AND, I don't like to review books I didn't like, because I'm so hyper-aware of authors as real people, quite possibly (ill-advisedly) reading their own reviews. But MAN! When I read a book that seems like the author didn't give that consideration to the people she was describing, I feel a little differently about the whole thing. But keep in mind that I DID read the whole thing, and yet I'm only listing the things that bugged me.

(image from Amazon.com)

I was ALL SET to like this book. FIRST: insider peek into a culture I'm completely unfamiliar with, which is the kind of thing I love. SECOND: a story I could likely empathize with, about leaving a religion. THIRD: "Scandalous"!

The book opens as the author interviews her own mother, who ALSO left the Hasidic community, leaving Deborah behind when Deborah was a child. Do we find out the story behind this? No. Then we have an ENTIRE BOOK leading up to Deborah leaving the community herself. Do we get to hear how that happened, how she got away, how she managed to bring her son with her, what she then did about the relationship with her mother, or even about the scandal she caused by leaving (promised by the title)? NO. WE DO NOT.

Instead we hear an adolescent-style persecution story that reads like a fairy tale, and lots of nasty stories about the people she left behind. As when I hear someone bitterly slamming a spouse during a divorce, all this does is bring to my mind how unreliable one side of a story can be, and point out to me how motivated she would be to tell the most shocking stories possible, and make me start mentally coming up with a defense for the other side. The stories could even be TRUE, but they're told in such a relishingly vicious tone, they ring false. I ended up feeling sorry for the people she was either (1) deeply humiliating by revealing their very private and embarrassing secrets, or (2) telling lies about.

She specifically says that she doesn't think evil exhibits itself externally, but she makes sure to tell us just how ugly, squinty, frowny everyone she doesn't like is. The men she doesn't like are effeminate and weak and can't grow facial hair; the women she doesn't like have extra body hair and deep voices and are so bitter and unpretty no one would marry them. Everyone she DOES like is gorgeous, including herself: "I never thought about the shape of my head before, but now that it's out there in the open, I marvel at its perfect proportions and the sudden symmetry of my countenance." She also has great hair, and her calves bring honor to her family.

We hear quite a bit more, too, about how exceptional Deborah is. There are stories of her academic triumphs that sound like the fantasies children have: in one example, her teacher thinks she can't read well (because, the author says, not one other student in her high school class can), and challenges her on it in front of the class, and she BLOWS EVERYONE AWAY with her AMAZING DELIVERY AND SKILLZ. The teacher is SHOCKED:
...she...isn't expecting to find a student here who can read decently, let alone quickly, easily, and with excellent inflection. I can tell she is wondering how I could possibly have come by such perfect English. The rest of the class already knows I'm a good reader and relishes the teacher's comeuppance. They love it when I read, because my loud, lively reading and expressive interpretation of the story actually make the session fun.

Later she explains that everyone else waits for God to do things for them, but SHE wants to be someone who works miracles for herself. While everyone else prays for mercy (she can tell that's what they're doing: she's faking it, unlike everyone else), she alone challenges God:
A sudden peaceful feeling of resolution washes over me... I know instinctively that I am not as helpless as some would like me to think. In the conversation between God and myself, I am not necessarily powerless. With my charm and persuasiveness, I might even get him to cooperate with me.

In fact, again and again she remains silent just like everyone else---but while she knows HER silence is silent rebellion and HER passivity is because there's nothing she can do, she knows everyone ELSE is silent and passive out of dimness and lack of spirit. Everyone looks the same from the outside: SHE ALONE is special and different. She alone questions the way things are! She alone notices inconsistencies and oddities! She alone wants something different! She alone has DREAMS! Everyone else just wants to submit without even thinking about it! She can just TELL. "Why are they sending us home? ...Only I am curious, it seems."

When her fiancé's family presents her with an unengraved, expensive, extensively jeweled gold watch and a string of large pearls, she somehow KNOWS that no one gave a moment's thought to what she might like:
But it is appropriate that this watch should not have my name on it. It wasn't made for me, not in the way Eli's watch was, handpicked for his personality ... Perhaps if they had been picked for me, it would have been different later. ... But these gifts were purchased with no thought to who I was or what I might like.

It is worth noting that she and her fiancé (Eli) had met only once, for half an hour; that her fiancé's family had met her only twice but were nevertheless expected to choose something perfect for her; that she can't possibly know that they didn't spend ages trying to find the perfect thing; and that she chose her fiancé's watch from a store display (she manages to sound as if she had it made for him), based on her own tastes. (We have no report here as to whether he felt it had been chosen specifically for his personality, or how she knew it was perfect for him after knowing him half an hour.) Also note: she goes so far as to imply that maybe everything would have turned out differently if they'd bought her different presents.

Sadly for the prose style, the inevitable Inspiring Teacher in her life was adamantly opposed to colloquial writing. Sample result of this influence: "I wonder if I am but another figment of the suffering that Zeidy takes such a spiritual relish in, if to my grandparents I am but a test from God, one to be born humbly, without complaint." Can you imagine someone saying that out loud? TEACHER HAS SUCCEEDED. It's page after page like that. Later she mentions really loving the old-fashioned style of authors like Austen. NO KIDDING.

Also sadly for the prose style, this teacher was apparently fine with rhetorical questions. Did the author never notice that a serious of questions with no answers can sound kind of pompous? Did she never find that it was a style that could get a little wearying for the reader? Did none of the editors/publishers/agents involved notice that the entire book has a major problem with asking questions and never answering them? Did THEY not get weary, just proof-reading it? Did they not at some point think, as I did, "Hey, these are GREAT QUESTIONS and exactly why I'm reading the book, so how come you didn't write any ANSWERS at any point?"

There are many, many things that made me think "Whuh?" For example, she claims that in Hasidic communities, no one mentally ill or disabled can be helped in any way other than by their families, because they can't be put into the care of Gentiles. Okay! I will accept that Gentiles could not properly take care of them. Then...could a Hasidic center be opened up for that?

Or, she claims to have had absolutely not even the most basic knowledge about sex and to be shocked when she finds out the smallest detail (she didn't realize either boys or girls even HAD those parts)---but then she is not at all shocked to hear about her husband's experiences with other boys, and seems completely familiar with concepts such as child molestation, incest, homosexuality, and masturbation. And there's this story about a certain sexual issue she has? but a speculum goes in just fine? so I'm not sure what the what?

Or, she talks about how she now bears no resemblance to the girl who used to think God was sending her signs, and then she mentions signs from God several more times---always signs that approve of all the decisions she's making and confirm her view of her stand-out-from-the-crowd-ness, so I guess she was right about her ability to charm and persuade him. "God wants me to leave. He knows I was never meant for this." Then shortly afterward she's back to saying that something seems like a sign, but now it's from the universe. (The universe agrees with God.)

Or, she mentions how glad she will be to give up all her daughterly duties to her father, but throughout the book she's mentioned only how he's never there for her and the family does nothing for him and that she herself won't even acknowledge him on the street. Whew! It'll be a relief to be relieved of THAT duty!

Or, she claims to have been in a car accident "as the clock struck midnight." She has a chiming clock in her car? How does she know when it happened, when she also says that everything went black after the accident and she didn't wake up until later?

I think she couldn't decide which way she wanted to spin this story. Did she want to be the blameless lamb, innocent of everything, completely helpless, sincerely meaning to be the best and most obedient daughter/wife/mother but thwarted in that attempt? Or did she want to be smart and knowledgeable all along, seeing through the facade, never fooled, always planning to leave, forced onto paths she actively resisted until she finally escaped? By trying to spin it both ways, she got the worst of both: she seems to be blaming everyone else for the bad while taking all the credit for the good, and I don't believe either part of it.

So much of it could be absolutely true, and there could be reasonable explanations for all the many things that seem like they don't make sense. But it READS false, and it also reads INCREDIBLY ANNOYING.


MonkeyBusiness said...

Um, I kind of love this review. It made me laugh and was highly entertaining! Good work, Swistle ;)

Beth said...

Sounds truly awful and dishonest.

But - great review!

chrissy said...

What a GREAT review! Publishers should hire you as a consultant before they spend the first dime printing anything. It would save them so much money.

I often wonder how these types of books get published. I can understand an author writing scatter-brained stories, but I cannot understand WHY the editors/publishers don't pick up on it. Seriously, you people do this for a living.

Jessica said...

It's a bummer you didn't like it. I have this on my library request list. I didn't read the review beyond the first couple paragraphs, because I'll still probably read it, but I'll definitely be back to commiserate after doing so. Look for my random comment in about a month!

Lynnette said...

This is the best bad review I have ever read. I am imagining it in the voice of Suzanne Sugarbaker, which makes it even better.

Sarah said...

" In the conversation between God and myself, I am not necessarily powerless. With my charm and persuasiveness, I might even get him to cooperate with me" - Seriously? Someone alert Andy Cohen. We've got some real potential for Real Housewives of the Reformed Hasidic Community.

But, favorite book review, ever, Swistle.

Gina said...

This is one of those books that is on my wish list, but every time I get close to clicking "buy" I end up getting something else. I read the free sample and it interested me (I also enjoy books that give a glimpse into other cultures, lifestyles, etc), but after reading your review, I know I would be disappointed, too. I would want to know her mother's story and how she managed to get away.

Life of a Doctor's Wife said...

Well, now I want to read the book just so I can be cranky about it too! It sounds so wonderfully awful!

Jen said...

It sounds so obnoxious I almost want to read it. Almost.

I don't think I've ever enjoyed a book review on a book I haven't read before now Swistle.

Kalendi said...

Loved this review! The book didn't sound appealing before, but now it might be fun to read just to gag and laugh over those parts you've described.

Sara said...

This was an awesome review. I wonder what your thoughts would be about Roanoke, by Lee Miller. Her writing style has some..... er... flaws. If you ever read that book (it's about the Roanoke colony that first settled in North Carolina), I would love to hear your opinion.
I find that books like this- that have mind-meltingly-annoying flaws- are almost entertaining in their awfulness. Like, I knew within three pages of reading Roanoke that I was going to hate how she was going to tell the story, but for some reason, I couldn't put it down. It was BEGGING for ridicule.

clueless but hopeful mama said...

Now THIS is my kind of book review!

I was interested in this book for the same reasons you were and I'm so glad you saved me from reading it. I much prefer to read your review anyway.

Hope you released at least a little of the crankiness through writing this highly entertaining review!

Chayary said...

OK, I wasn't going to comment, i really tried not to. But. I am Jewish, and Orthodox. Not Hassidic. I'm no Pollyanna, I know bad stuff happens in that community, like there is bad in many communities. But--I couldn't even bring myself to pick it up though. It seems to me like somebody who by her own explanations came from a difficult home situation and always felt like an outsider is not the right person to give an honest representation of the good and bad.
I don't like memoirs usually anyway, unless the person has done some really interesting things OR is an amazing writer, because there is so much me me me me by definition.
Just FYI, if you google her name, you will find very quickly that the book is controversial, there are a lot of facts in the book that are called into question. I do not know what the truth is, but I am so glad I didn't bother reading it!

An interesting look into (one part of the complex) Hassidic culture-- I saw an Oprah piece that was very sweetly done.


Melospiza said...

Swistle, I heart you.

Anonymous said...

Hmmmmmmmm, now Im torn as I just checked this out of the library...do I read it just bc I loved your review so much or do I promptly return it so I dont waste precious time?!?!?! What a shame bc it sounded so interesting.

Alice said...

oh man, i just LOVE me a bad... er, "spirited" book review :) and this one sure was spirited!! far more entertaining than the book, it sounds like! :)

Sarah said...

I've always been very interested in the Hasidic culture (esp. now I'm close to being a doula, since apparently a lot of Orthodox women use them, due to religious cleanliness laws about their husbands not being allowed to touch them once they begin bleeding during labor?) So I probably would've read this, but now I won't, 'cause it sounds like it's very light on the tell-all, revelatory stuff and very heavy on the self glorification and irritating anecdotes. Dang it. Thanks for sparing me the waste of time!

Swistle said...

Anonymous- You should give it a try, maybe skim it a little just enough to see if you agree!

Sarah- I do think you might find parts of it useful, maybe with extensive skimming. There's a labor scene (I returned the book or else I'd tell you the page number so you could skip right to it---maybe 3/4ths or more of the way through?), although even now as I'm remembering it, I'm remembering how annoyed I was that she didn't say much WHY about things.

Cayt said...

At the start of your review, I was thinking, 'oh, that sounds really interesting!' and by the end, having read the quotes, I was thinking, 'oh, that sounds hellish'. Thank you!

the Joneses said...

I have a friend on my FB newsfeed who could have written this book! Not the "escaping from religious oppression part" so much as the "impressed by the proportions and symmetry of my own head" part.

Lisa H. said...

I absolutely love your book reviews! So funny, and honest and REAL. I'm still laughing about "TEACHER HAS SUCCEEDED".

TinaNZ said...

"..and her calves bring honor to her family" made me giggle out loud. At work.

swimmermom said...

I love your paragraph about the rhetorical questions. I re-read it just this moment and laughed out loud AGAIN.