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Unorthodox Storytelling

Shira Haas in Unorthdox (2020) (© Anika Molnar - Netflix / IMDB)

Deborah Feldman's memoir, Unorthodox, is more than a depiction, or even indictment, of the Satmar. It's an indictment of any patriarchal social system that shrinks young women's dreams to the size of a kitchen, and then blames them for it.

Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots
Deborah Feldman

Simon & Schuster

March 2020 (paperback)


For all its Yiddish inflection, Netflix's 2020 miniseries Unorthodox is plainly a thriller. Esty (Shira Haas) a young, recently married woman, makes a shocking and sudden break from her insular Hasidic world in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She bides her time until the perfect moment to sneak away. She secretly buys a plane ticket, and flees to, of all the ironic, symbolic places, Berlin, where her mother also fled decades earlier. Esty's estranged husband, Yanky (Amit Rahav), and his shady, worldly cousin, Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch), pursue, stalk, and threaten her to return.

Visually, it is less the story of a woman's emancipation than a woman in peril, packed with filmic imagery. Moishe secretly secures a gun—how will it go off? Esty quickly finds a coterie of musical, multicultural friends in cosmopolitan Berlin, where her previously hidden dreams, like her natural hair, may now grow. Both the hair and dreams had been hidden beneath her sheitel, the culturally compulsory wig, until she removes it, in the water, in a powerful moment of becoming herself. Her rebirth mirrors the mikva, or ritual Jewish immersion, from which she is fleeing.

Unorthodox, the perfectly titled memoir by Deborah Feldman from 2012 upon which the series is loosely based, features none of these moments. There is no running, no gun, no music, no lake, no Berlin. We learn that Feldman lives there now only from the author bio. Instead, the memoir chronicles Feldman's early realization of not belonging, her slow disenchantment with the way of life she was never meant to question, and her years-long separation and divorce—from her husband, sect, and community. No one comes after her.

The book's subtitle, The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, is applicable to both book and series. The contrasts between them, however, provide a way of understanding not only Feldman's memoir, but also the differences between memoir, as a medium of words, and television, a medium of images.

fire by google104 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

It's easy to see why the series' producers would take liberties with the story. As Feldman takes pains to express, her real awakening was incremental and internal, not sudden and cinematic, existing in her mind and on the page. At a young age, Feldman became an avid reader of forbidden secular novels, sneaking books the way other kids sneak cigarettes, hiding out in the public library a neighborhood over, and reading the strange, misunderstood children who escape to the secret worlds of Wonderland and Narnia as potent metaphors for herself.

As Feldman writes early on, "There is always a happy ending in children's books. Because I have not yet begun to read adult books, I have come to accept this convention as a fact of life as well… It was a bitter pill to swallow when I realized that no one would ever pick up the glass slipper I left behind."

Still, escapes to magical worlds and happy endings are some of the reasons that kids gravitate to such stories. But in Feldman's case, the confinement of her childhood was not a metaphor, and the world she wanted to escape from is governed by what feels like magic: invisible, divine law and retribution. Her community views every problem -- from the scandal that their wigs were made from doctrinally unacceptable hair, to bad children, to a swarm of flies, to the Holocaust -- through the lens of divine punishment. The secret world she wants to escape into is special because it is unmagical.

This moment—a child in a library—would not look like much on film, even as it feels full of urgency on the page. Books, including the one we're reading, as opposed to a plane ticket, serve as both the medium and the message for Feldman's extrication and eventual escape. There is no gun, because the threats she faces are non-corporeal and spiritual.

Feldman's illicit reading then, becomes the only means for her to find herself. In Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868), Feldman reads Jo as a "woman who can't fit comfortably in her time, whose very life and destiny are unnatural to her", much like herself, despite huge and obvious circumstantial differences between them. Later, as Feldman begins sneaking books that are no longer YA literature, she thinks, "Really, I am not far off from a character in Pride and Prejudice. My entire future will also depend on the advantageousness of my marriage." Reading allows Feldman to understand truths universally acknowledged, if not the particulars of her own life.

Still, Feldman comes across one culturally relevant book, Pearl Abraham's The Romance Reader (1995), about an Orthodox girl who becomes secular: "Even if the book claims it's a novel, I read it like a breathtaking piece of raw journalism, because the stories detailed within are so current and real, they could be happening got me, and I know that the author must have at least based the book on her intimate life experiences."

What Feldman reads as her reality, non-Orthodox readers would take as a glimpse behind the curtain of a world that they only see from the outside, which is how most readers will contextualize her book, Unorthodox. For the secular reader, Unorthodox is the magic ticket, the enchanted wardrobe, that allows entry into the highly private, insular world of the Satmar, Feldman's particular sect.

More than the book, the series luxuriates in showing the shtreimel, payos, and tzitzit of the Orthodox, who live visibly, and are hardly hiding, in the most populous city in America. Yet what goes on in this secret world increasingly disturbs Feldman as she matures. In particular, Feldman comes to see a community that hides and shuns its mentally ill, including her father, protects abusers, and limits not just what women can do, but what they can even imagine.

Unlike the series, most of the memoir focuses on Feldman's childhood and adolescence. She doesn't even get married until two thirds in, unlike the series, where she is married from the beginning. Instead, the slow build toward her marriage allows the memoir to create a stronger indictment of the Satmar's patriarchal culture and the way in which her sexually and emotionally incompatible marriage is not a mere mismatch, not personal, as it seems in the series, but systemic and symptomatic. It is, simply and terribly, one of the many ways, starting in childhood, in which women are kept powerless.

When she considers her future, a young Feldman thinks, "I can never go to college, I know. They censor the word out of our textbooks. Education, they say, leads to nothing good. This is because education—and college—is the first stop out of Williamsburg, the first on the path to promiscuity that Zeidy [her grandfather who is raising her] always promised me was an endless loop of missteps that distanced a Jew so far from God as to put the soul in a spiritual coma."

Shira Haas in Unorthdox (2020) (© Netflix / IMDB)

When an internecine schism in the Satmar community goes to secular court, Zeidy says it's "an embarrassment to God… He hates it when they take our dirty laundry and hang it out in public for everyone to see." And so, eventually, as described in the book's Afterword, Unorthodox itself inevitably becomes such an airing of dirty laundry. Yet in the end, in ways that the series, for all its drama, cannot demonstrate, Unorthodox is more than a depiction, or even indictment, of the Satmar. It is an indictment of any patriarchal social system that shrinks young women's dreams to the size of a kitchen, and then blames them for it.

It's tempting to read Unorthodox in line with Bread Givers, Anzia Yezierska's 1925 coming of age novel about a girl, growing up in a New York, Jewish immigrant family, who also also uses education to leave her community. But it may have even more in common with Tara Westover's 2018 bestselling memoir, Educated. Despite that on the surface Westover's rural Idaho, survivalist Mormon upbringing couldn't be more different than Feldman's experience, both discover that books, reading, and ultimately college provide a means to reimagine who they had the potential to become. That's something that no plane ticket alone can provide.

In trying to understand him, Feldman describes her grandfather this way: "Zeidy comes from a legacy of oppression. His ancestors lived in Eastern Europe for generations, enduring pogroms that were not unlike the persecution during Hitler's reign. I can't comprehend how a person who comes from so much pain and loss can perpetuate his own oppression." Feldman means that he "perpetuates his own oppression" on himself, by denying himself joys and pleasures. But it's clear that he also perpetuates oppression on his granddaughter, acting as a repressive Czar over Feldman herself.

Zeidy, and the other Eastern European immigrants of his generation, had the strength to flee from their oppressor. It is this same strength that Feldman uses to escape her own tyranny, and to write her own story. True to thriller form, Netflix's Unorthodox ends in a quasi-cliffhanger. Fortunately, Feldman's memoir, while open-ended, ultimately has the happy ending she feared adult stories don't get. Or at least, it's happy enough. And most importantly, it's her own, which is the best most of us can hope for.

Photo of Deborah Feldman by Alexa Vachon (courtesy of Simon & Schuster)

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