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16 Whodunit Movies and TV Shows That Make for a Cozy Watch
Feeling like some light murder mystery to fill those long winter evenings? We’ve got you covered with these titles that’ll keep you wondering who did it while also totally falling for their investigators and casts of unorthodox characters. We’ve included stories that feature adept investigators, mustachioed detectives, teenage sleuths of Holmes lineage and even total amateurs.
Gosford Park (2001)
Fan of Downton Abbey ? Then you need to check out this Robert Altman film penned by Downton ‘s creator and writer Julian Fellowes. It’s set during a hunting party celebrated throughout a weekend in Gosford Park and attended by an array of British aristocrats and their staff. But when the host at Gosford turns up dead, chaos ensues as you try to understand who may be responsible for the deed.
The movie features Maggie Smith playing a prickly lady with unrealistic standards, not unlike her Dowager Countess. You can rent Gosford Park from Amazon, iTunes and other usual streaming services.
Pushing Daisies (2007-2009)
This Bryan Fuller ( Hannibal ) dramedy sadly only lasted for a couple of seasons on ABC before being canceled — during a time in which streaming services were not prevalent or in the habit of picking up canceled fan-favorite shows. The show is now available on HBO Max.
Lee Pace stars here as Ned, a pie-maker. He has the ability to bring dead things back to life with just a touch. But touching beings a second time renders them inanimate forever. His unusual gift makes him the perfect companion for private investigator Emerson Cod (Chi McBride), who needs help questioning his murder victims. Their first case together is the death of Chuck (Anna Friel), Ned’s childhood friend and first love. He brings her back to life but is unable to let her go again, and the two of them pine for each other — unable to ever touch.
This contemporary adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic private detective character made stars out of Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) and Martin Freeman (Watson).
The BBC show, which in the U.S. aired as a PBS Masterpiece series , ran for four seasons of no more than four episodes each. But the long, feature-length episodes sure managed to portray Sherlock and Watson in full detail and sketched very complex and difficult-to-solve cases inspired by Doyle’s original novels.
I’ll admit this is one of the least “light” offerings on this list. Even if you watch Luther with the lights fully on, you may still want to check under your bed before going to sleep. This BBC show, which you can watch on Britbox and Starz if you’re in the U.S., follows London Detective Chief Inspector John Luther (Idris Elba) as he’s having one of the worst days of his life: He’s back at work after a breakdown, his wife Zoe (Indira Varma) has left him and he crosses paths with the obsessive and murderous Alice (Ruth Wilson).
The Neil Cross-created show aired its fifth season in 2019, and even though the rumors about a season six kept popping up for a while , the troubled detective’s fate will be revealed in a Netflix movie also starring Cynthia Erivo and Andy Serkis.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
And please excuse me for suggesting another not-exactly-light watch. This David Fincher-directed adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s Swedish bestselling novel of the same name stars Rooney Mara ( Carol ) as the hacker and lover of all things black Lisbeth Salander and Daniel Craig ( No Time to Die ) as investigative journalist and Larsson’s alter ego Mikael Blomkvist.
We already mentioned this film, which is now streaming on Hulu, when we talked about book adaptation decisions that have upset fans . It’s not that Fincher’s version of this tale is disappointing, but The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is only the first one of the Nordic noir series Millennium and we never had Fincher-directed movie adaptations of books two and three.
Since Larsson’s passing and due to the international success of the novels, the series of books was continued by David Lagercrantz with three more installments. The first of them — The Girl in the Spider’s Web — was adapted for the screen with Claire Foy ( The Crown ) as Salander.
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (2012-2015)
This Australian production, which you can see on Acorn TV , is based on Kerry Greenwood’s series of mystery books and follows socialite-turned-private investigator Phryne Fisher. The show is set in 1920s Melbourne and is worth a watch if only for the period clothes, shoes and hats.
Essie Davis ( Babyteeth ) plays the unconventional and glamorous Fisher, an independent woman who loves a good mystery and finds herself always in the path of Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page). The show has three seasons, featuring a case per episode. The follow-up film Miss Fisher & the Crypt of Tears was released last year and is set in Jerusalem and London.
Before Olivia Colman played several queens, won an Oscar, was nominated for a second one, amassed four Emmy nominations and managed to win one of them , she starred alongside David Tennant in Broadchurch . Set in a fictional British coastal town in Dorset, Broadchurch follows Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller (Colman) and Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (Tennant) as they investigate the death of an 11-year-old boy who appears at the base of a cliff overlooking the local beach.
The investigation spanned the first season of the show, which has two more seasons and even an American adaptation, titled Gracepoint , that sees Tennant playing the lead detective once again. The three seasons of Broadchurch are now available on Netflix.
Gone Girl (2014)
This David Fincher-directed movie of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel of the same name and adapted screenplay stars Rosamund Pike as the Gone Girl herself, Amy Dunne. Ben Affleck is her husband, Nick Dunne. The couple is forced to leave New York City for Missouri when they both lose their jobs. While Amy disappears from their home one day after months of apparent unhappiness, all signs seem to point to Nick as the culprit — and even the killer.
It’s difficult to predict the very unexpected twists in this movie that definitely didn’t make it to our list of upsetting book adaptations . The stellar cast is rounded out by Tyler Perry, Neil Patrick Harris, Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens. Gone Girl is streaming on Hulu.
This Amazon Prime original show is based on Michael Connelly’s best-selling detective series and stars Titus Welliver as Harry Bosch, a Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective haunted by his own past.
The show also stars very prominently the city of Los Angeles and features one murder to solve per season. Bosch has just finished its seven-season run at Amazon, but the character of Bosch will be next seen in a spinoff series for Amazon’s ad-supported streaming service IMDb TV .
This supernatural procedural show stars Tom Ellis as Lucifer, the Devil himself. He decides to leave Hell and ends up in Los Angeles, where he owns a nightclub. His ability to make people tell him exactly what they want gets him a gig as a consultant with the Los Angeles Police Department, not that he needs the extra money or anything like that. But Lucifer helps Detective Chloe Decker (Lauren German) resolve murders while undeniable chemistry develops between the two of them.
This is one of those series that has gotten much better with age. It started airing on Fox for the first three seasons and, after being canceled, was then picked up by Netflix. I particularly enjoyed a very creative fifth season that saw not only new characters — Dennis Haysbert playing God was perfect casting — but also a noir black and white episode set in the 1940s and a musical one in which the cast sings and dances to “Another One Bites the Dust.”
Lucifer ‘s sixth and last season premiered on Netflix on September 10, 2021.
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Irish filmmaker Kenneth Branagh directs and acts in this star-packed adaptation of Agatha Christie’s quintessential whodunit . Branagh dons the mustache and the affectation to play infamous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who is forced to investigate a murder when someone turns up dead on the train he was riding from Istanbul to Calais en route to London.
And while this adaptation may not appease all of Christie’s fans — the film has a 53% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and is a bit heavy on the CGI front — you can always opt for the 1974 adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset and Anthony Perkins. The 2017 version of this story can be rented on Amazon and iTunes. The 1974 one is available on Hulu.
Big Little Lies (2017-2019)
This HBO adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s bestselling novel was supposed to be a limited series. Executive produced by and starring Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, the TV version of Big Little Lies was developed by showrunner David E. Kelley ( Ally McBeal ). The show also stars Shailene Woodley, Zoë Kravitz and Laura Dern as the moms, all with very different backgrounds, at an elementary school in Monterey, California. Season one managed to unveil not only the identity of the person whose death is being investigated but also who was responsible for the crime.
Season two incorporated Meryl Streep as Kidman’s disagreeable mother-in-law and managed to give us quite memeable moments, including Dern’s Renata proclaiming: “ I will NOT not be rich! ” But Big Little Lies would have probably been a better show if it had stuck to its original limited series plan. Let’s hope the also murderous Mare of Easttown doesn’t go the unnecessary second-season route due to its success and Emmy wins.
And in case you were wondering, even though it stars Kidman, is run by Kelley and is based on a Moriarty book, Nine Perfect Strangers won’t exactly quench your thirst for more Big Little Lies .
Murder Mystery (2019)
This summer movie hit was released on Netflix in June of 2019 and, at the time, broke viewing records for the streaming service : More than 30 million households watched the movie in the first three days after its release. Starring Jennifer Aniston as a hardworking New York hairdresser and Adam Sandler as her clueless-cop husband, Murder Mystery sees the couple finally crossing the pond and taking a European vacation after 15 years of being married.
Almost by chance, they end up being invited to the luxury yacht of billionaire Malcolm Quince (Terence Stamp), who’s vacationing on the Mediterranean with his many heirs. When Quince turns up dead, the Americans are framed for the murder, and they need to figure out who did it to clear their names.
The movie mixes a broad sense of humor with a lot of winks to traditional mystery tropes — from a deathly library to a train called Orient Express. Plus, the production shot on location in Italy, so the film is a great watch if you just want to escape and turn your brain off.
Knives Out (2019)
Everything that Murder on the Orient Express didn’t quite get right, Knives Out did, satirizing the genre while also bringing new life to it. This homage to classic whodunits penned and directed by Rian Johnson ( Looper ) stars Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jaime Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield and Christopher Plummer and packs a few surprising plot twists.
The movie was such a success — it grossed more than $310 million worldwide and boasts a 97% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes — that Netflix famously closed a $400 million deal for Knives Out 2 and 3 with Craig returning as detective Benoit Blanc and Johnson writing and directing.
Knives Out is available on Prime Video.
Enola Holmes (2020)
Based on Nancy Springer’s young adult book series and featuring Sherlock Holmes’ younger sister Enola Holmes, this Netflix movie stars Millie Bobby Brown ( Stranger Things ) in the titular role. She’s a runaway teenager who escapes to London, trying to figure out the disappearance of her mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) — and ending up entangled in another case with the also teenaged Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge).
Netflix has already picked up Enola Holmes for a sequel movie .
Only Murders in the Building (2021- )
This joyful comedy encapsulates murder mysteries at their best and most irreverent. Set in a ritzy apartment building on New York’s Upper West Side, it stars Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez. They’re three neighbors and perfect strangers with not much in common other than the fact that they’re living in the place where a murder could have been committed and they all love true-crime podcasts.
The Hulu show — you can read our review here — boasts an impressive ensemble cast including Tina Fey, Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and even Sting. Plus, it manages to fit in a lot of very meta-references about the podcasting world and some of its obsessive fans. The show has already been renewed for a second season.
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Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots
262 pages, Paperback
First published February 14, 2012
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“Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots” by Deborah Feldman
"I can't help my natural impulse to talk back," Deborah Feldman writes, describing her tendency as a child to correct a teacher's grammatical mistake or misquotation. "It results in a world of trouble that I could easily save myself from, if I could only learn to keep quiet." In " Unorthodox ," her memoir of growing up in the strict Satmar Jewish community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that rebellious streak eventually led to the ultimate act of defiance: leaving the community behind.
From a young age, Feldman never quite fit into a restrictive world where Yiddish is the vernacular, and women never go to college and are frequently married off in their teens. Branded an outcast because of her mother’s flight from the community and her father’s mental illness, she was raised by her grandparents and lived in constant fear of being caught reading secular books in English. (Naturally Roald Dahl’s “Matilda,” who also had to keep her bookworm ways a secret, was among her favorites.) But once her son was born, that inkling of rebellion became an urgency to escape.
Feldman seems to render this secretive community authentically; I only wish she’d spent a bit more time editing herself. The lopsided book traverses her childhood in painstaking detail, which is often redundant and overwrought. The drama picks up in Feldman’s married years, as she’s paired off with someone she’s known for 30 minutes and is expected to become a baby machine. Suddenly her personal struggle with Satmar Hasidism is no longer just about her; she can’t bear to force her son into such a restrictive world and bolts for secular New York.
I certainly understood that Feldman wanted more out of life; but in the end, I wanted more from her narration. How did she handle such a tough transition, raising a child while attending college at Sarah Lawrence? She spends so much time on the world she left — without much exploration of where she’s ended up.
The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots
Simon & Schuster. 254 pp. $23
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Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots Paperback – October 2, 2012
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- Print length 272 pages
- Language English
- Publisher Simon & Schuster
- Publication date October 2, 2012
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- Publisher : Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition (October 2, 2012)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 272 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1439187010
- ISBN-13 : 978-1439187012
- Item Weight : 7.4 ounces
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Book review – “Unorthodox” by Deborah Feldman
We are living in an age where minorities are beginning to find their voices. Many people who have experienced discrimination are angry. Their talents have been undervalued, their lives and their health have been damaged, their daily lived experience has, for many, been characterised by fear and by acts of hostility. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is rocking the United States to its very foundations and leading to some intense friction between people who have been historically oppressed and who are saying enough is enough, and people who fear what they might lose. Some of these, no doubt, subscribe to the view that the oppressed somehow deserve their lesser status. The movement has taken hold in the UK and throughout Europe too, although it does not appear to be quite as toxic as in the USA. The conversation we all now need to engage in will be a difficult one.
In the last week or two, we have seen a resurgence of another discrimination issue which is much more long-standing, that of anti-semitism; the UK Labour Party is currently considering a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on anti-semitism in its recent past. The full report will not be published for some time yet, but this will be a painful period for a party which has tolerance and plurality at its heart. The rapper Wiley was (eventually) banned from various social media platforms after making posting anti-semitic remarks recently, repeating discredited conspiracy theories. Several celebrities and public figures boycotted Twitter in protest at the failure of the social media giant to take down Wiley immediately.
Unorthodox is the story of Deborah’s childhood and teenage years as a member of this closed community. It provides a fascinating insight into the norms of this ultra-orthodox group. The Hasidis have separate schools and girls are not permitted to have a full education. In fact, boys aren’t either really, they are just educated to a different end. The girls are expected to marry young, very young, and have many children. From this book I learned that Hasidis (and I hope I am representing this accurately), are opposed to the state of Israel, it being a secular state. They also believe that the Holocaust was a punishment (divine punishment?) for Zionism and by the assimilation of non-orthodox Jews with other societies. I realise the differences are probably far more complex than this, so I hope any Jewish readers will forgive any simplification – I am happy to be corrected.
The Satmar sect to which Deborah and her family belong, continue to follow centuries-old customs, which include, for example, arranged marriage, separation of the sexes and the requirement for women to wear wigs. Menstruating women and girls are considered unclean and must endure cleansing rituals before they are permitted to have sex again. Young people are taught nothing about sex, however. When she is married to a shy and inept young man at the age of seventeen, Deborah does not even know what her body parts are supposed to do. The marriage is disastrous, for both of them, and is not consummated for a year. When, finally, Deborah and her husband manage to have sex, she becomes pregnant very quickly and gives birth to a son at the age of nineteen.
To a western European reader, of no particular religious persuasion, the account of life in the community is both jaw-dropping and enlightening. It is genuinely hard to imagine how such a sect can continue to exist, particularly in the melting-pot of New York. This book, however, is not political, rather it is intensely personal. Deborah develops a curiosity from a very young age; she is interested in books by, for example Jane Austen and Roald Dahl, but she is forced to read them in secret. Her reading opens her eyes to other possibilities, however, and she glimpses a vision of a life outside the community. Her good fortune is that in some ways she never felt fully integrated, her parents having separated and her mother having come from outside the community; we are witnessing discrimination within discrimination within discrimination. This is quite telling in itself.
As she grows older, Deborah sees the cracks in the community – the absurdity of some of the customs, the cruelty these can give rise to, how the women conspire in misguided ways against one another to perpetuate their misery, and the hypocrisy in the political power struggles in the community. Deborah finally escapes the sect. You would think that a curious and intelligent girl on the doorstep of one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world find it easy to leave, but reading the book gave me an insight into the degree of control the elders hold over the young people, particularly the young women, disempowering them psychologically, financially and intellectually. Perhaps this comes from a place of fear, but that is not the subject of this book – it is one woman’s story of escaping a kind of captivity and finding her own mind.
It is a gripping account which I recommend highly. It has also been adapted and made into a television series by Netflix – something else to go on my ‘must-watch’ list!
Discrimination and its effects are common literary themes – what are your recommendations for books on this topic?
Author: Julia's books
Reader. Writer. Mother. Partner. Friend. Friendly. View all posts by Julia's books
7 thoughts on “Book review – “Unorthodox” by Deborah Feldman”
Wow, this is a very interesting book!! I think it might be similar to the memoir “Educated” by Tara Westover – she was born in a radical Mormon family. The children did not have a birth certificate, they did not go to school … it’s a fascinating story, and truly eye-opening for someone who faces these types of communities for the first time (as it happened to me when I read it).
Yes it is very much like Educated. I reviewed that book on my blog a few months ago. I would say Educated is better written, for me, and the abuse the author encounters is more explicit, more violent. In Unorthodox you could argue the author also encounters a form of abuse and neglect from within her own tribe. It gives an insight into a very closed society.
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I have never read the book but I did watch the Netflix series which was so interesting!!
I’ve just finished watching it on Netflix. The TV show is only loosely based on the book, so the storyline is a little different. I enjoyed the TV show too.
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I’ve just read this, but I’m not sure I fancy the TV series.
Yes, it’s quite different. I liked both, but they are essentially different stories entirely sharing the same themes. It’s quite a short series so not a massive commitment.
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'Unorthodox' Author Chronicles A 'Scandalous Rejection' Of Hasidic Life
Deborah Feldman talks about breaking away from her arranged marriage and the fundamentalist religious community she was raised in. Her 2012 memoir inspired the Netflix series Unorthodox .
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. The Netflix series "Unorthodox" was recognized this award season with Golden Globes, Critics' Choice and Independent Spirit Award nominations. The series, about a young woman who flees the restrictive customs of her Hasidic Jewish sect and an unhappy marriage, was inspired by the experiences life-true of our guest, Deborah Feldman.
Feldman grew up in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. Her family belonged to the Satmar community of Hasidim, known for its strictly enforced religious customs and heavily circumscribed gender roles. Feldman's memoir is a gripping account of her struggle to cope in a world where women could look forward not to education or careers but an early arranged marriage and years of child rearing. Her book, first published in 2012, is "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots." It's now available in paperback. She's also published a second memoir called "Exodus." An updated version will be released in August. She now lives in Berlin, where she's raising her son and working on a German-language novel. She joins us from her home in Berlin. Deborah Feldman, welcome to FRESH AIR.
DEBORAH FELDMAN: Thank you so much for having me.
DAVIES: You know, I want to begin by noting that there is a wide variety of religious practices among observant Jews in the United States and around the world. And we should just note that we're going to talk a lot about your experience, but it's not necessarily typical of all Jews or even all Orthodox Jews or even all Hasidic Jews. You grew up in the Satmar community of Hasidim. You want to just explain a bit about its outlook on the Holocaust and on Jewish ritual and custom?
FELDMAN: Well, I was raised by Holocaust survivors who chose to join the sect voluntarily after the war in New York. And they accepted all of these new rules and rituals that they would have only been vaguely familiar with prior to the Holocaust, because they felt, I think, prevailing guilt for surviving and that the Holocaust had happened as a punishment for the sins of the Jews in the diaspora - sins such as pursuing education and pursuing things like integration and assimilation and even sins like Zionism. And the only way to build a world in which a Holocaust would not occur was to take each and every traditional rule and regulation and interpret it to an extreme.
DAVIES: So describe some of the rules for women in the world that you grew up in. Some of them are Satmar-specific. Some of them belong to many other Jewish Orthodox communities. But just what were some of the rules for girls and women in your world?
FELDMAN: Well, like all religions we know today and all Orthodox Jewish groups, the rules begin by focusing to an extreme extent on the dress, comportment and behavior of women. So when I was younger, what was very obvious was all of the rules surrounding how I was to dress, which colors I was allowed to wear, what kind of fabrics, what kind of cuts and styles, how long my skirts had to be, how long my sleeves, how I was supposed to wear my hair, how loud I was allowed to talk or laugh, how should I behave if I were to walk on the street and another man would be walking in my direction, you know, how to step aside - so it was very much designed to make me as inconspicuous as possible. And you spend your entire childhood very aware of this - of the problematic nature of your female presence and of the necessity to negate it and to cover it up.
DAVIES: What kind of education would girls get?
FELDMAN: It's sort of like a mix of household skills, such as sewing, knitting, cooking and then learning every religious law that would apply to the household. So you would learn the laws of kosher, for example, or the laws of the Sabbath because you would need those in your work as a housewife and a mother. And then we'd learn some Jewish history, which was basically a list of all of the events involving persecution of the Jewish people. And then you would learn some Mussar, which is a kind of a series of lectures on character and how to build good character and how to achieve characteristics like humility.
And then you would have a little bit of secular education at the very end of the day when everyone was exhausted and irritable, and you were encouraged to not take it too seriously because it didn't really matter. It was just there because of absolute necessity. I did try to glean what I could from those few lessons, but it was difficult because if you appeared to care too much and if you appeared to do too well, there were so many suspicions raised against you about why you would prioritize something that the community clearly taught you was not only not necessary, but also threatening.
DAVIES: And you said that you end up with - you actually don't get a state-certified diploma. You're not considered a high school graduate under state law, isn't that right?
FELDMAN: That's correct. I still don't have one.
DAVIES: You were different, though, right? I mean, you had an interest in the outside world. You know, it's interesting that when you look at Williamsburg - I mean, it's right there on the edge of the East River, and you can look across and see the skyline of Manhattan. And it's really striking to me that, you know, thousands of people can grow up in a fairly socially isolated way in this city, which is the largest and maybe the most diverse city in the United States. You were kind of more outward-looking, weren't you?
FELDMAN: Well, I think prior to being outward-looking, I was certainly lonely and unhappy. I was already different by virtue of my circumstances, being raised by my grandparents instead of by my parents, having parents that were divorced, having a mother that had disappeared. I mean, there was so many strikes against me from the beginning.
DAVIES: Right. Maybe we should spend a moment on that, I mean, 'cause you were different in that way. You kind of were mostly raised by your paternal grandparents, right? And your mom left when you were young. And what were the circumstances of the family splitting up?
FELDMAN: My grandmother had 11 children, and they were pretty close in age. My father was the seventh son. And in this community, you marry arranged, and you marry in chronological order. So you would wait for your older siblings to be married off before you would marry someone. And if the siblings are close in age, what often happens is that if one sibling starts to get older, all the other siblings waiting behind him would get older as well. And in this community, getting older is very unattractive on the marriage market. We marry very young. And so at some point when my father was in line to get married, it wasn't going well, and he was already 23 or 24. And they couldn't find a match for him because everyone in the community already knew that he suffered from some mental problems, and nobody wanted to offer up their daughters.
And so my family ended up, out of desperation, purchasing a bride from a poor, broken family abroad. And she was not aware of any of the issues, and so she was essentially tricked into the marriage by being offered all sorts of bonuses like jewelry and an apartment and so on. And they married them off. And of course, my mother realized shortly after the marriage what was going on, but she was stuck. She had nobody who would help her, and she had no other place to be or go. And like me, she also didn't have an education, and she also didn't have the resources and the ability to survive in the outside world. So for a long time, she stayed in that world. She got pregnant. She had me. She suffered from severe postpartum psychosis, I was told. I don't know if this is true. Her state of mind and her health was very poor when I was a child and she wasn't able to take care of me, is what I was told. And so even before I lived with my grandparents, I was being shuffled around from aunt to aunt and cousin to cousin. And their marriage was deteriorating. And by the time I did move in with my grandparents, she was gone.
DAVIES: And you were about how old?
FELDMAN: I was about, I would say, 8 or 9 at that point. Prior to that, I had lived with an aunt and uncle about four blocks away. And I wanted to move in with my grandparents. I asked for that. I don't think it was ever the plan. I think the plan was to always keep me going from aunt to aunt - and I had many aunts, and I had many cousins - because everyone felt my grandmother was too old and that she had already raised her 11 children and sort of deserved the rest. But we had something, my grandmother and I. We had a very interesting, unique relationship that I think no one else really understood.
And I moved in with her. And I think that was the biggest comfort of my childhood. I think that that relationship sort of saved me. It provided me with the only positive influence in my childhood and the only feeling of security and, also, beauty. My grandmother was a very - almost a fairytale-like creature. She cultivated the only garden in Williamsburg. And she was musical. And she was creative. And she had, like, an - she had an eye for all the misunderstood and overlooked sources of beauty in the world. And she shared that with me. And I think that's what saved my childhood.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me introduce you. We're speaking with Deborah Feldman. Her memoir, "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots," was the inspiration for the Netflix series "Unorthodox." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RHYTHM FUTURE QUARTET'S "IBERIAN SUNRISE")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Deborah Feldman. She is the author of a memoir, "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots." It was the inspiration for the Netflix series, "Unorthodox," about a woman who leaves her life in an Orthodox Hasidic community. She has also written an additional memoir called "Exodus." And a new updated version will be out in August. So in Williamsburg, in the Satmar community where you lived, you grew up with your grandparents because your father had mental illness and mental problems, was not really part of the picture. And your mother had left that marriage. Your first language was Yiddish, right? Was that - was Yiddish spoken around the house?
FELDMAN: Yes. Yiddish was the primary language in my community.
DAVIES: Right. Now, Yiddish was the language spoken at the home. What were your grandparents' attitudes towards you speaking or reading English?
FELDMAN: Well, English was forbidden. So I wouldn't have been told much about English except that it was, like all things, not part of our community, evil and threatening. It could hurt me. But on the other hand, you know, in school, we would get this very minimal, rudimentary English lesson. And so I was exposed to just enough of the foundation to build on it. And so if I did sneak out and get myself a book in English, I was able to make sense of it and, you know, improve my vocabulary and my reading skills independently. And because there were no books available for me in Yiddish, and certainly not in Hebrew because women weren't really given real access to the holy tongue and the books written in the holy tongue, I essentially had no choice but to turn to secular books.
DAVIES: You know, it's interesting that you might have taken an interest in other parts of the outside world, like, you know, popular culture and rock music. Instead, you managed to sneak books in English. You kept them hidden underneath your mattress - right? - so your grandparents wouldn't find them. And you spent a lot of time reading classics of literature - right? - "Little Women," "Pride And Prejudice." Can you just describe the effect that had on your thinking and development?
FELDMAN: Well, first off, I think that I turned to books and not to rock music because I probably would have found rock music very threatening, very frightening. Even with books, I chose books like "Little Women" and "Pride And Prejudice" because I felt safer with those books. They felt familiar enough. You know, the world of "Pride And Prejudice," where marriages are arranged and women's value is determined by their status as a wife and mother, it's very similar to where I come from. It doesn't feel so foreign as to be threatening. The one time in my adolescence when I was exposed to, I guess, a portion of pop culture - in the chapter where I discuss accidentally seeing the film "Mystic River" - I was nearly traumatized by that experience because I had no idea how to understand the film. I had no system of references for it. And so I believed that everything in the film was a true indictment of the outside world and that my community was right, that the outside world was evil and that people did constantly commit crimes like murder and theft willy-nilly. I didn't really know how to understand the outside world. And for a long time, even after I left, I experienced the outside world as terrifying.
DAVIES: As you got older living in the Satmar community, the idea of marriage comes into focus. Let's talk just a bit about the steps in arranging a marriage. You said a lot of your life was sort of managed by your aunt, who you call Chaya. And she finds a matchmaker, right? And how are you first introduced to the family of the man that you've been chosen to marry? Walk us through how it works.
FELDMAN: Yes. So I'm 17 years old. And my family has been researching for months. And they've been working, you know, without my knowledge for months, meeting with the family and sort of deciding everything in advance. And then, at the very last minute, it just boils down to the physical acceptance of my presence, right? I need to be seen. I need - it needs to be ascertained that I am not too ugly to be married. And so I am told to go to the supermarket. And I am told to dress up in my best clothes and to carry my beautiful new handbag because, suddenly, I've been showered with beautiful things because I am now of age.
And I go to the supermarket in these beautiful clothes and carrying this handbag and feeling so grown up. And my aunt says to me, just, you know, walk along the aisles and pretend you're looking for something. And I'm like, why do I do this? And she says, because your future mother-in-law will now watch you. And so I have no idea what my future mother-in-law might look like. But I know there is a woman in the shop. And she's come here to see me. And she's come here to pronounce me worthy or unworthy. And if you are rejected, that rejection is crushing. It goes into your resume.
So before you even think about what the acceptance might mean, you know, marrying into that family, marrying the son of this woman, you just think of that rejection, the prospect of the rejection and how crushing it can be. And I think this is so clever the way that this gets set up because everything about the way the system works makes you value that arranged marriage. It makes you want it because the alternative is so much worse. And so I'm walking in the supermarket and just hoping against hope that some person that I've never met looks at me and thinks I pass muster.
DAVIES: Right. And you eventually figure out who it is. I mean, there're not that many people (laughter) giving you such a careful look, right? So - you know, it's interesting that you got very little notice that this was going to happen, this trip to the supermarket where important - (laughter) an important evaluation of you would occur. Similarly, after that, when the mother-in-law apparently told the matchmaker, yep, she's acceptable, there's a meeting of the families at which you will finally meet the man that they have been - that's been chosen for you. Again, you get very little notice of this. Just get your best stuff on. We're going over to Aunt Chaya's house. Just describe what happens in this encounter between the two families and you and your future husband.
FELDMAN: At first, once everyone arrives, they all sit around a large table. And they make small talk. And the young man and woman in question mostly sit in silence and sneak glances at each other. And then eventually, after enough small talk has been made and they assume that we feel relatively comfortable, they leave the room. They go into the next room. They close the door almost completely but leave it open a crack because the law requires that. And we are left to our devices for about 20 to 30 minutes. We have to make conversation. I'm told that the man has to start the conversation. So I stay silent. He takes a few moments to come up with an idea of what to say. And those first few moments are awkward.
But eventually, he speaks. And it turns out he's quite nice. There's really - there's nothing about him that would make me skeptical or fearful. He's relatively attractive. He seems intelligent. He seems kind, sensible. Like, I only notice, with relief, with tremendous relief, that he has good qualities. And, you know, you're thinking the whole time, it could be so much worse. It could be someone who's so fundamentalist, they won't even look at you even though they're supposed to be looking at you to decide if they're going to marry you. You could be with someone who is selfish or who is pigheaded or diffident. I mean, there's so many ways that things could go wrong. So in that moment, I'm just thinking, well, there is nothing I can pinpoint that's bad.
DAVIES: And so then, the deal - it's not like, then, you retreat, and you have a week to think about it, right? I mean, you...
DAVIES: ...You make a decision. And it's indicated literally by a nod to your aunt. Is this right?
FELDMAN: Yes, because it's already clear - by the time that you're told that you're going to see this man, it's already clear by seeing him you are engaged to him because the consequences would be so drastic if you weren't to become engaged. You would lose so much value on the market that whatever would come next would be much worse, certainly, than whatever it is that could be bad about this person. So you know even before that it's going to be engagement. And that's why you feel such intense relief in this moment when you realize your partner isn't obviously terrible. And, yes, there is that look and the nod. But it's just perfunctory. Everything has already been prepared. You know, the alcohol is already on the table. And as soon as the meeting is done, there is a verbal agreement. And we all drink to it. And it's over. There's no going back.
DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Deborah Feldman. Her memoir "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots" was the inspiration for the Netflix series "Unorthodox." She also has a memoir "Exodus." And an updated version will be appearing in August. She'll be back to talk more after a short break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN'S "LA COMPARSA")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. My guest is writer Deborah Feldman. Her memoir about growing up in the Satmar Hasidic sect in Williamsburg, Brooklyn - and eventually leaving it - is the basis for the Netflix series "Unorthodox." Feldman's book, which is now available in paperback, is titled "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots." When we left off, we were talking about how marriages were arranged in her community. When she was 17, her future husband was chosen for her - a man she'd never met. They had a brief conversation at a meeting arranged by the families to confirm their engagement, and they were married seven months later. I asked her about the wedding night.
You have had marriage classes at which things are explained to you about sex, right? How much did you know about physical intimacy before you got to these marriage classes?
FELDMAN: Well, it is a big part of the series, and I believe it is the heart of the book. And I believe that at the heart of my story is a story about a woman's body. And, you know, I think of it as a very physical narrative. And being told your whole life that your body is the source of sin and evil and that it must be denied and covered up and then being told that, oh, by the way, your body is also the key to reproduction, and reproduction is the holiest and most precious goal of our community, and in order to reproduce, you need to use your body, and you need to use it on behalf of the community, exactly the way the community tells you - this is a very intense shock.
But certainly, I was told shortly before my wedding that I possessed reproductive organs and that my partner possessed complementary reproductive organs and that somehow we would manage to turn those organs into a baby. And it was never explained clearly to me, so nobody ever actually used the scientific words for anything. Nobody actually explained how it happens. But they said to me, in your body, you have a hallway, and at the end of the hallway, there is an altar, and your partner will leave a sacrifice, you know, or an offering at this altar. And a door will open to the source of all life, and there, like, the seed will be planted, and a child will be - like, so abstract. So abstract.
And this abstract language is terrifying because you're very aware in this moment that you have no idea what's happening, and you desperately want to understand because you know you need to understand in order to make a success of this one most important thing in your life - becoming a wife and mother. But you're terrified to ask questions because you're terrified of asking the wrong questions. You're terrified of seeming lewd or lascivious. And so you don't because you're being told that everyone else learns it exactly the same way and everyone else manages to do just fine. And you think, oh, your partner will know more. You'll get married, and he'll know what to do.
DAVIES: So your wedding night comes, and the marriage is not consummated that night. You simply are unable to have intercourse. And the next day, the day that you actually get your head shaved - because you're going to have to have to wear a wig - and your mother-in-law drops in to this. And what happens?
FELDMAN: I'm sort of happy to welcome her into my brand-new domain, right? I'm putting out the nice dishes that I have and the nice napkins. And I want to, you know, serve her coffee and, you know, play house. And she immediately says, I know that it didn't work. And at the beginning, I'm just too surprised to understand what's happening. Like, what does she know? How does she know it? Does she assume it? And she explains that her husband told her that my husband had told him that we had attempted to consummate the marriage and we had failed at doing so.
And before this moment, I thought this is normal. Lots of couples probably have this the first night. You come home at 5 a.m. You're so tired. You don't know what you're doing. Like, so we'll just try again the next night, right? Like, at this point, I was still quite relaxed. And then she came in, you know, with this stony face, like this is the end of the world. Your marriage isn't consummated. You're not married. Like, you're living in sin, basically, because you are not married.
And it was this big deal. It was this, like, Halakha problem, which is, like, a problem of Jewish law that had to be decided in the Jewish court, and, you know, Jewish advisers and rabbis had to be called in to pronounce their verdict on us. It was humiliating, shameful. Everybody knew within a day that we hadn't consummated, that we hadn't managed it. And I was ashamed to walk on the street because I had no idea who knew and who didn't.
DAVIES: And of course, this information came from your husband, who immediately told his family. And that's a practice that goes on. You end up getting medical exams because this goes on quite a while. I mean, you continue to have difficulty. And you get advice from sex therapists and rabbis and hypnotists and a biofeedback specialist. You know, with some years of distance and perspective, do you understand what was going on?
FELDMAN: I think that I understand it as best as I ever will. And I think that my husband at the time was in a very comparable situation. I think that we both grew up denying our bodies, not developing any kind of relationship with them, not understanding how they work or how they might work for us, not understanding how to enjoy them or how to understand their signals. And when you're just so disconnected from your body, sex doesn't work.
And sure, maybe it could work in some cases anyway, but a lot has to go well. You know, you don't know this person. You don't even know if you like them. Everything has to function. And you need emotional and mental involvement for that to happen. And then maybe that's possible with time. Maybe two young people could still have a chance to get to know each other and build some trust and maybe discover their bodies in that moment, even though they've always been disconnected from them. But as soon as the community gets involved and puts this sacred pressure on the couple, it must be done; otherwise, your holy duty has not been fulfilled. That chance goes up in smoke, and it doesn't end well.
In my story, I do manage to get pregnant at some point but at the cost of great pain. And, you know, my family considered the problem solved, but it was far from solved.
DAVIES: You do have a son. And then you move out of Williamsburg to a town north of New York City called Airmont, where there's a large Orthodox community. There's a remarkable moment you describe that I have to ask you about, when you're six months pregnant, and a rabbi comes from Jerusalem who's coming through, and he's known - he's very well-known. He's a Kabbalist from this mystical strain of Judaism. And it's seen as something terrific if you can get a session with him for his insights. You do this, and then he tells you something that he thinks could be a problem in your marriage, which is really striking. You want to share this with us?
FELDMAN: He says that the matchmaker is resentful because she didn't get paid enough. And I think this sounds strange to you because it's so foreign, but actually, where I come from, there are all these superstitious ideas that, you know, people can put the evil eye on you, which is something you find in a lot of traditional cultures. And so one of the first things a Kabbalist will always look for when there's a problem is who could possibly cast an evil eye on you.
And since I had told him about the problems in the beginning of our marriage, even though at that point I was already pregnant, he said to me, you know, all of your problems are probably because the woman who arranged your marriage is angry that you didn't give enough money. And it turned out in this case to be true (laughter). But, you know, at the time, I was grasping for straws. I would have loved to believe that it was that simple. It wasn't that simple. We ended up giving the matchmaker more money. It didn't fix any problems. But of course, there is this superstitious belief that if you can just - if you can make somebody happy and you can kind of get rid of the evil eye, everything will be, you know, A-OK. It wasn't.
But something - you know, something else happened at that session where, you know, the Kabbalist basically hinted to me that I would end up leaving the community. He implied it in - you know, in a symbolic way. But he told me that I would die and I would be reborn, that I would go my own path and that my child would be instrumental in this. And he gave me a number. He gave me a number nine. And I ended up having this terrifying and insane car accident on midnight, September 9, 2009, where my car just - like, the front tire ripped, and it flipped over three times, and it was torn apart in pieces. And I ended up emerging without a scratch, even though, like, when the ambulance came, they put me in this, like, brace 'cause they were so scared that I had, like, severely damaged myself.
And I ended up seeing this moment as, like, an impetus to leave because I felt that God wasn't punishing me with the car accident, but rather showing me that I could survive anything. And he gave - it gave me the courage to leave the very next day. And because of this, like, him telling me this number nine and, you know, being - dying and being reborn, I ended up reading it as a prediction, that he predicted that I would leave my old life and be reborn into a new one. But maybe I'm just still very superstitious.
DAVIES: How does the number nine figure into the car accident?
FELDMAN: Well, it occurred exactly at midnight on September 9, 2009. So it's - so on my phone, you know, when I crawled out of the car, it was 9-9-09. And, you know, you get chills. It - I mean, it's a coincidence, right? But it creeps you out.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you once again. We are speaking with Deborah Feldman. Her memoir, "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots," was the inspiration for the Netflix series "Unorthodox." We'll be back to talk more after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with writer Deborah Feldman. Her memoir about growing up in and eventually leaving a Hasidic sect in Brooklyn was the basis for the Netflix series "Unorthodox." Her book, which is now available in paperback, is "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots." She has another memoir called "Exodus," and an updated version of that will be appearing in August.
You know, in the series "Unorthodox," part of it's kind of your story and part of it's an imagined story. I mean, in the series, the character who's based on you, whose name is Esty, makes a daring escape from Brooklyn, the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, to Berlin, where her mother lives. That's really not your story. You went from Brooklyn to this community in - called Airmont in north of New York City. And eventually, you took a class at Sarah Lawrence College and got interested in writing and had more and more contact with secular people.
Eventually, after this terrible car accident, you decide to leave the community. It had to be very tough. You had a son. You didn't have, you know, a degree. How did you manage to put together the resources and wherewithal to make a life?
FELDMAN: Well, I mean, I don't know if what I had in those first few years could rightly be called a life. I mean, I would call it survival or hanging on to the very edge of survival. I left on faith. I think it's important to say that because where I come from, faith is everything. And when you leave this community, you also leave on faith 'cause that's how you've been trained to take risks. I sold my jewelry. I sold a book proposal. I had enough money to make a start. And I got very creative later, when the money ran out. I would sublet my apartment for a few weeks and go stay with friends. I donated my eggs at some point to survive.
So the first few years were really just about survival. It was about day to day, month to month. It was about getting custody of my son. It was about finding my footing, you know? The very basics.
DAVIES: It is remarkable that you sold a book proposal (laughter) 'cause, I mean...
FELDMAN: It is.
DAVIES: ...People spend years trying to do this.
FELDMAN: I agree.
DAVIES: I think probably you had quite a literary education, self-taught. And you had a powerful story to tell, didn't you?
FELDMAN: I started by blogging. I think that was how it had even came to be because an agent or - no, a publisher saw my blog and referred to an agent, and an agent offered to help me. And I got 25 rejections from publishers before David Rosenthal at Simon & Schuster called my agent and asked me to come in for a meeting. And after meeting me, he made an offer - a very, very generous offer, considering the era and, you know, the fact that I was unknown and so young and had experience. And so we went to publication with a very small print run. And yet the book exploded. And it took - I mean, I remember everyone around me just pondering, like, how to explain it, how to explain that the book did explode against all expectations. And I remember my agent being like, oh, well, you know, maybe there is something very American about your story after all, just like the story is about women running away from the Mormon communities and the Amish communities and the Mennonite communities. Like, maybe running away from religion is the quintessential American story. So all of a sudden, I wasn't this niche, like, weirdo. But all of a sudden, I was the ultimate American. I was the person that ran away from the religious sect. And if you look at the landscape of America, there is something - there's something very national about that.
DAVIES: What - how did the community react to your departure? I'm sure there was a custody issue with your son.
FELDMAN: I had very carefully observed the trajectories of other women who had made attempts to leave prior. And I had learned from those attempts. So I made myself pretty much out of reach. I got rid of my phone. I was hiding, in the beginning, at friends'. And I kept changing my address. I tried to be very hard to find in the beginning. The primary source of disapproval was about custody, as you say. The community hired lawyers. And they were going to go for full custody. Even if my ex-husband didn't want it, they were going to fight for it on his behalf. And I ended up using the publicity around the book, as my lawyer had advised, to get custody.
In fact, that was the original reason I came up with the idea to write the book because my lawyer had said to me that she couldn't give me any useful legal advice, but she could give me, you know, nonlegal or extralegal advice, which was find a way to get sustained public attention because in her experience - and she had similar experiences in the '80s with other cases - she felt that the only thing the community was really afraid of, the only way to cause it to back down was to shine a spotlight for a sustained period of time on the community's actions.
And that's exactly what I ended up doing. On the day of publication, I had the paperwork signed 10 minutes before I went on national television with Barbara Walters on "The View" because I basically said if they wouldn't sign the mediation agreement that we had been negotiating for so long, I would tell America that I was going to lose my child. And they ended up backing down for exactly that reason. It was a very clever calculation on behalf of my lawyer. And it was only after the book was published that the pursuit from the community became very intense. And that's when I felt the full force of that rage.
DAVIES: So what form did that rage take? What did you experience?
FELDMAN: The rage took many forms. Some of it was organized. Some of it was more impulsive and spontaneous. I had - I got a lot of threatening hate mail from my family and from my community. My family told me that they had already prepared my grave, and they couldn't wait to dance on it. All I needed to do was to commit suicide. There were people discussing on online forums in Hebrew and Yiddish what would be the Halakhic permission to kill me. They were waiting outside my apartment. You know, they were publicly speaking out against me, trying to defame me and discredit me.
So it really was happening on all levels. And I felt at that time that my safety was threatened. And that was when I decided to leave New York City. And I basically decamped to the far reaches of the countryside. And I kept my address completely private. Nobody knew it. And I basically hid out for a few years after the book was published until the furor died down. But I didn't actually feel fully physically safe until I moved to Berlin because here I was out of sight, out of mind.
DAVIES: It must have been painful - people that you knew all your life to have no contact with.
FELDMAN: It was very painful to no longer have contact with my grandmother. On the other hand, I do mention in the book that my grandmother developed dementia already before I left and that she had trouble recognizing me shortly before I left. And I think that made it easier. I think I might not even have done it if that had not been the case. But it was almost like I had already lost her. And so I could deal with that loss, whereas contact with the rest of my family members - losing that wasn't so difficult. I mean, when you get these letters telling you that your grave is ready, and they want to dance on it, I mean, that's a confirmation that this is the kind of family you don't need. If anything, it sort of cemented my decision and made me feel like I had really done the right thing because you have to get away from family like that.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Deborah Feldman. Her memoir, "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots," was the inspiration for the Netflix series "Unorthodox." We'll talk more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with writer Deborah Feldman. Her memoir about growing up in and eventually leaving the Satmar Hasidic sect in Brooklyn was the basis for the Netflix series "Unorthodox." Her book, now available in paperback, is "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots."
How did you end up settling in Berlin?
FELDMAN: I came to Berlin the first time in 2013 as part of an extensive trip to Europe to retrace the steps of my grandmother before she came to the States. And I wasn't impressed with the city at the time. I was doing Holocaust tourism, as they call it, and so I didn't really get to know Berlin as a city but just Berlin as a tourist site. But I ended up coming back for a completely different reason a year later, and I stayed in an actual neighborhood, and I met real people. And I ended up realizing that Berlin has this very strange status of being a home for runaways. And bizarrely enough, I ended up meeting a lot of people who grew up ultra-Orthodox in Israel and in Europe and in the States who had reinvented themselves there. And so it felt like the only place in the world where I even had a chance of reinventing myself. It is a city that doesn't require you to have roots the way other cities might, and it doesn't really require you to belong. The way that you belong in Berlin is by being a misfit.
So I remember being very attracted to it then and having a friend of mine who grew up Orthodox telling me that I could easily get the German passport because I had German-Jewish ancestors. And, immediately, I also felt that the language was so familiar. You know, Yiddish is basically a variant of middle-high German, and I just could so easily transition into the language, which felt both new and old at the same time. And then there was this factor of how important Holocaust remembrance is here and how it's something that everyone is involved in all the time. And it felt like, finally, I was in a place where I wasn't the only one carrying memory into my heart, you know, that I wasn't alone with it because in America, I did feel like it wasn't something people were much preoccupied with, whereas in Germany and in Berlin, it's omnipresent.
And I felt almost, like, a sense of relief in that, like I could almost let my burden down, or I could share it with others, and I wasn't alone with it anymore. And so it just - I think for all of these very diverse reasons, it felt as much like home as a place could ever feel for me. And this has proven to be true over the years. So I do feel more comfortable here than anywhere else.
DAVIES: You know, it's a very disturbing, unsettling world, as described in your book, that you grew up in. And, you know, we - there are many tens of thousands of women in the United States who are part of the Hasidic community who don't see, you know, their lives as prisons of oppression. And I'm wondering, are there parts of the traditions and practices of your youth that you do see value in? Are you proud of it in any way? Do you feel - still feel connected to it?
FELDMAN: I think I very much do feel connected. And I think that evidence for that is in the novel that I'm currently finishing in German, which draws so much from my own childhood experiences and from my culture but also from the history of Yiddish literature and Yiddish poetry and the history of the Hasidic diaspora. I mean, every - all of my inspiration comes from where I come from, all of my material and my resources, both in my creative work and my expression of myself but also, like, the building blocks of my character, everything I like about myself, everything I appreciate about my abilities and my skills. It comes from this experience. So I couldn't be the person I am, and I couldn't be living the life I'm living without all of this. I don't regret anything. I don't ever feel sorry for myself. I feel really grateful that I was given these experiences but also that I was given the resources to process them and to turn them into something that is, for me, golden.
DAVIES: Do you observe any Jewish ritual today?
FELDMAN: Very sporadically when the mood strikes, when my son decides that it's fun but not at all compulsively.
DAVIES: Don't belong to a synagogue? Was your son bar mitzvahed?
FELDMAN: I asked him if he wanted to, and he said he just wanted to have a party. And that's actually what most secular Jews do anyway, so it's like, all right, we'll have a party.
DAVIES: Sounds like you're happy.
FELDMAN: I am. Isn't that crazy?
DAVIES: Well, it's quite a journey, yeah. Deborah Feldman, thank you so much for speaking with us.
FELDMAN: Thank you for having me again, Dave.
DAVIES: Deborah Feldman's memoir "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots" was the inspiration for the Netflix series "Unorthodox." She's also written a second memoir called "Exodus."
On tomorrow's show, we talk with New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose about how the growing use of automation is eliminating jobs and sophisticated algorithms based on artificial intelligence are affecting our lives in unseen ways. His new book is "Futureproof: 9 Rules For Humans In An Age Of Automation." I hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF TERRY GIBBS' "PAPIROSSEN")
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. We had additional engineering help from Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.
Book review: ‘Unorthodox’ by Deborah Feldman
March 26, 2020 book review: ‘unorthodox’ by deborah feldman.
When Deborah Feldman’s memoir hit shelves in 2012, all hell broke loose. Not before or after have I seen so much to-do about our little niche world of defectors of the Hasidic faith. Everyone was talking about Unorthodox , raving, ranting, attacking, defending, calling her a James Frey or an Angela’s Ashes—fussing it all the way to the New York Time’s bestsellers list. I too was a cauldron of hot-headed opinion and “taking sides.” Soon, there were fault lines among ex-Hasidim. Some tried to criticize Feldman, and some saw this criticism as a betrayal. I was among the critics, and that fact rained Feldman’s and other people’s anger down on me. I still hear about my unforgivable betrayal. Yes, all we were talking about were pieces of the book and the book publicity. I didn’t give the book a careful read that first time. I was too worked up.
Now, the dust has settled. I have much more distance from the story. I’ve also reaped a bit of the overflow from the book’s success; many fans of Unorthodox wind up in Williamsburg on my walking tour because Feldman piqued their interest. We are also talking about her again because the Netflix miniseries adaption of her book is due to hit on the 26 th of this month. I’m cooped up in our New York City apartment with my Kindle, suffering the Covid quarantine. It’s a good time to give the book a careful review, with, I think, more objectivity, and also with an eye for how readers have reacted to the book since its publication.
In order to give you the context in which I come to this book, let me tell you that I’m a metaphorical cousin second-removed to it. Here are the connections: I also was raised in the Satmar Hasidic community, and I also have one son. I am a year older than Feldman. We both got divorced with dreams for more, we both are public about our journey. I also lived in Rockland County. People often comment that I am like her. It makes me want to pounce and gouge their eyes out, but I can’t blame them.
More relevantly, I know half the cast of characters. Mindy the brilliant friend: She was my camp buddy and email pen pal for many years; she’s a magnetic personality. Her villainous mother-in-law: She was our chef through middle and high school, and she was like an icon in our schools; she was known for her eggplant parmesan and for shooing girls out of the kitchen as we went on the prowl for a toaster to make the whole-wheat bread more edible. Her husband’s “ugly” and “jealous” sister-in-law: She was my tenth-grade first aid teacher and was known as “lively;” she, like me, lived on Satmar Drive. And the sleep-away camp scenes: Of course, I too was in summer camp and can vouch for Mr. Rosenberg’s red beard and Mrs. Halberstam’s renown…and for that field of tall grass. And then there’s Eli, Feldman’s husband, who, like me, grew up on Satmar Drive in Monroe, although we didn’t know each other until much later. We met as residents of the greater Monsey area in about 2010, well before we had any idea about all the shit would go down. We were close for many years and had a million playdates with our sons. Eli and Yitzy were really like family.
I never met Deborah. She came as close as pulling up to my house in an SUV to collect her son, but that’s it. I never understood her. But now, by rereading her book, I think I know her. And I don’t like her much. She lives in an inner world in which things are skewed, poisonous. She is an unreliable narrator because she sees the world in distortions, and herself as a victim of everything. This helped me understand her, but it also confuses any reader who doesn’t have enough context, and it ends up creating a false brand of feminism, pointing a judgmental finger at Hasidic women who don’t leave the fold, regardless of their reason or ability.
I’ve browsed the bulk of the reviews on both her books and the single question readers want to be answered is: How did she escape? How did Eli allow her to take the child? How did she get custody? Was it proven that she lied about something? How did she get on her feet financially? Why doesn’t she fill us in on this in her follow-up memoir, Exodus ?
She does answer all these questions. It’s there, in Unorthodox . She tells us of the important moments but with many spins and misrepresentations. She is so consumed with her perpetual victimization that the reader doesn’t notice how her life evolves, how she slowly inches away from her childhood world.
Let me tell you how she left, how she was able to get custody, how her husband allowed it; I’ll tell you by drawing entirely from Unorthodox .
Feldman introduces us to her life in the Williamsburg Hasidic community when she is a young teen. The early chapters of the book are very different from the second half. These are a series of descriptive essays without any forward progression in the narrative. She paints her world, and sometimes it is even lovely. She tells us the important part of her story: her shame. Her family isn’t “normal,” whatever the wretched word means. Her father is cognitively disabled, and her mother has previously come out as gay and left the fold. In the eyes of the community, Feldman is a bit of a pity. She feels that people look down at her and she is not comfortable being assigned to the lowest rungs in the hierarchy of status. She is already uncomfortable, already not snugly fixed into this world.
I don’t say this with judgment, heaven forfend; it is more likely that those who already don’t fit in will leave. Think Shulem Deen, who also published a memoir (you can read that review here ) or Gitty Grunwalk, who was in New York Magazine . The community loves to point out that those who leave are more likely to come from “broken” homes. “Why did she leave?—ah, a broken home, poor thing, tut tut tut , she just fell through the cracks…” The community reads this as proof that the breakaways are damaged people who are not rejecting Hasidic society but are rejecting their own lives. But that’s not why coming from a different background makes you more likely to leave.
People with families like Feldman’s are more likely to leave because they are not as deeply ingrained as those who have an entire respectable family in the community. For the “broken” homes, roots don’t run so deep, or there aren’t as many roots to begin with. In Feldman’s case, she had a mother on the outside and a father who wasn’t present. She lived with her grandparents where she had much less oversight than the supposedly normal children who suffered snitching and snooping siblings. (I know she has a sibling but don’t know the details.) Because she has a looser leash, she reads more. She can show off her advanced reading in class, and she buys herself contraband books in Boro Park. She gets away with it. She becomes a sixth-grade secular studies teacher, a position held by the fanciest and most stylish girls.
I’m showing the ways she is “deviating,” but I don’t deny her struggles. Undoubtedly, she was raised in hard circumstances, in a community of trauma, and where the patriarchy inflicts its damage on women on a whole other level. The small ways that she modernizes or chafes or breaks the norms trace the growing chasm between the expectations of the Hasidic community and her becoming an ex-Hasidic minor celebrity. The chasm grows slowly. The reader might easily miss it.
The weightier changes unfold in the second half of the book. At age seventeen, Feldman gets engaged to another “problem case.” She is to marry Eli, an older boy from the insular village of Monroe. He was twenty-four at the time, and that senior age tells you that he is trouble. Older boys are usually “bums,” the ones who just didn’t get engaged when their friends did and got bored and adventurous on the sly. It is hard to see in the early chapters that Eli is Hasidic Lite because Feldman does not tell us much about him. She is fixated first on his blond hair (I hear one more word of blond hair and blue eyes and I scream!) then on silly grievances over the gifts she gives versus the gifts she receives, and then on the very heartbreaking difficulty of consummating the marriage, as the couple grasps in the dark for answers and takes a year to understand and treat her vaginismus. This is especially devastating because as these sheltered novices grapple in the dark for help, their entire respective families butt in and violate their privacy, making things exponentially worse.
But even as several real and petty crises overshadow the story about Eli’s religiosity, we see glimpses of him as more “with it.” Here are some things that are a tiny bit subversive: Most girls from Monroe don’t talk on the phones with their grooms, a golden wristwatch is fancier than a pocket-watch (which is what my family gives in gift exchanges), and it is not par for the course for a sheltered Hasidic bride to be poured wine in champagne flutes. Romantic gestures from my wedding night entailed sitting at the kitchen table and making super awkward conversation while we noshed from the three-layer cake on the triple-level cobalt dishes. Feldman and her husband are the first to embrace the new phenomena of kosher Chinese food, and they “sneak out to go bowling.”
Things soon get devilishly goyish. Eli is a romantic (this I know to be true), and Feldman recounts that when she gets home from the ritual bath, she finds “the lights dimmed and rose petals sprinkled on the bed sheets.” And ooh la la, “Eli likes foreplay more than I do. Before sex, he wants to kiss and touch, and feel loved.” Also not typical for repressed religious extremists, he “tries to teach me to kiss slowly…He wants to make the experience last as long as possible.”
Of course, sex alone is never indicative of an entire relationship, as too many hypocritical males on this planet will prove. In their everyday life, Eli is also “progressive.” When Feldman vomits, “Eli hears me and comes out to hold my head, which is something he is used to doing for me.” There he is for the housework. “He takes to cleaning up the kitchen while I am ostensibly at the mikvah.” He takes her to her appointments, from the doctors about a rash, hypnosis, the many pregnancy scares, anxiety treatments, the unexplained STD. He takes a great interest in their child and cries when she finds out they will have a son and then again when the child is born. When the baby is born, she doesn’t want to hold the baby right away because “A glimpse of squirming, slimy pinkness makes me want to vomit,” but “Eli is already over by the crib, peering between the shoulders of two doctors…Eli is tearing up next to me.” When they arrive home with the newborn, “Eli has cleaned the apartment thoroughly, and when we get home, everything has been set up for the baby.”
Eli agrees to relocate from the Williamsburg enclave to the city’s suburb, Rockland County. This gives her an enormous amount of freedom. Feldman describes her new home in a community of non-conformists:
“I moved to Airmont… It used to be a small group of Hasidic families that had migrated from places like Williamsburg and Kiryas Joel, where the lifestyle was too rigid and extreme for them to be happy. A few young couples, like us—wives who wore long human-hair wigs and jean skirts, husbands who drank beer and smoked marijuana on poker nights. Someone called a “bum” in Williamsburg was now just another lapsed Hasid in the sprawling, diverse Jewish community of Rockland County. The difference between living in Airmont and living in Williamsburg is that as long as you don’t talk about it, you can break the rules. You can have the privacy to live the life you choose as long as you don’t draw attention to yourself.”
It’s a big deal that she can convince her husband to move; it’s an uprooting of sor ts. I remember when people in my circle were saying she moved. I still lived in Kiryas Joel, and when I heard through the grapevine that she moved, I envied her so much because my husband was adamant not to move, as it’s a “slippery slope.”
Feldman needs only to prod a little to get her husband to pack up with her:
“Eli has difficulty adjusting to change; he is by nature averse to any sort of risk taking. For weeks I lay the groundwork, reminding him how tedious his two hour commute to work is and how deeply that will cut into his time with the baby. All his brothers and sisters live upstate, I point out.”
So they move.
In the new environment, Feldman tackles a new milestone: learning to drive. This would have never been possible in Williamsburg. I wrote a longer post about the way Williamsburg women came to be barred from driving . Women are not allowed to drive. If they do, their children are not accepted to schools. This can be a problem if the husband refuses to consider more modern schools. Leaving is so hard if there are children who are enmeshed in the expansive Hasidic school system, but Feldman will never enroll her kid there. Feldman lives in Rockland County and is pregnant with her son when she starts on instruction:
“Steve is my driving teacher…I wake up early so I can get the vomiting out of the way, and by the time he honks his horn outside, my stomach is usually settled enough… When we get back, Eli is sitting on one of the lounge chairs on the front lawn waiting for me, and Steve looks out at him and says “That’s your husband?”
“Huh. He looks like a hip dude.”
Soon she grows her hair in and wears bouncy long wigs; her entire look changes. When she visits Williamsburg to introduce the baby to his grandparents, the local kids peg her to be a shiksa:
“I return to Williamsburg in the summer to visit Bubby and show off the baby, and I wear my long wig with the curls in it and a pretty dress that I bought from Ann Taylor and had lengthened so it would cover my knees…Walking down Penn Street pushing the baby carriage we got as a gift, I hear a little boy, no more than six years old, whisper to his playmate,
‘Farvus vuktzi du, di shiksa?’—’Why does this gentile woman walk here?’
I realize he is referring to me, dressed too well to fit into his idea of a Hasidic woman.”
Her next secular endeavor is college. She is still married, still very young. As always, she is dreaming of ginormous things. She tells Eli that she will take college classes. She fudges a bit, telling him it will be for business, not literature. “I will learn bookkeeping and marketing and things like that.” He is fine with it. He asks her about the practical implications and “if I will be home to pick up Yitzy from day care.” According to Frimet Goldberger who was in her social circle in Airmont, Feldman drove about town with a Sarah Lawrence College sticker on the bumper.
She loves Sarah Lawrence College, tickling herself over her smart-sounding comments in class, wearing jeans and her hair out, fraternizing with men, going to bars with blonde-haired shiksas, tasting the glory.
It’s a long way from Williamsburg.
Feldman wants more; she wants something specific. She wants a big life, to be a somebody. In college, she connects with people who know people in publishing. As she sees the bright future, she feels held back by her marriage.
“Eli and I go to a religious marriage counselor together. Afterwards Eli turns to me and says ‘We should just get a divorce, no? It’s not like this is ever going to work.’
I shrug my shoulders. ‘We could get a divorce, if that’s what you want.’”
But instead of divorcing in the boring, paperwork-heavy style of western courts, Feldman makes a dramatic exit. I have no idea why she finds this necessary. She tells us that she rents a tiny Kia and fills it with garbage bags of her belongings and her kid. Poof, she is gone.
“I changed my phone numbers and didn’t tell anyone my new address. I couldn’t risk being tracked down. I needed some time for myself, time to settle in, time to find some sort of security.”
What about the father, Eli? Yitzy was very bonded with Eli. I know this from a lot of experience with both of them, but also, she tells us this sometimes between the lines. For instance, she admits Eli was willing to move to Rockland County in part so he could spend more time with their baby. She also tells us that she isn’t bonded with her son at all until she leaves. “We have to get to know each other…I feel as if I wasn’t allowed to be his mother until now…” She enlists the three or four-year-old kid to play into this new reality: “Yitzy is like a new person…We sleep in the queen bed I purchased after I left, and before we fall asleep, we have lovely conversations. He worries about me, and I can tell, by the way he gives me impulsive compliments.”
What is happening here? From her telling, it seems she has kidnapped her child without saying a word to the father! And to make it even more chilling, she is suddenly besties with the kid, burdening him with an emotional load in no way appropriate for a four-year-old.
Eli’s version of this event is just as unsettling. In 2012 I sat down with him in my dingy basement apartment and interviewed him, hoping to put his story out there. The project fell apart at some point, but I still have the notes. I have several pages worth, but here is his account of when Feldman left:
“At the time she left, she worked at Conde’s Nest until late at night and her car turned over on the way home. I got a babysitter for Yitzy and ran to the hospital to her but she was very angry, yelling, ‘Why did God do this?’ and she didn’t want me to stay.
That weekend she said she wanted to go to her mother for Shabbes for a break. On Friday morning Yitzy woke up, came in like every day, bursting open the door…he ran with his fat tiny little baby feet onto the bed. It was the last normal morning.
I went to work, and I got a text from her that said ‘I left. Yitzy is napping in the car.’ She never did this before. I flew home, ran right to Yitzy’s bedroom and found his entire closet empty. Nothing was there.
Air left my body. I collapsed in my own hands. I don’t remember how long I was standing there, but I remember the next time I walked out of the house it was dark. I don’t remember for a few days what happened. She stopped communicating with me. She didn’t let me talk to Yitzy. I kept asking about him. She kept saying ‘he’s fine, he’s distracted.’
Finally after a week or two she agreed to meet me with Yitzy at a restaurant. I got there; I saw that she cut off Yitzy’s side-curls. I didn’t say anything about it. I didn’t care about the side-curls, but it bothered me that she wasn’t telling me what was going on. She knew I’d never raise my voice in front of him, so she made sure to talk about the important things in front of him. She said she wanted different things in life. Right away she started talking about child support, and things I didn’t know about started to fall on me. It was like someone comes in with a ready plan in a folder, marketed, with business cards, and I’m the one who gets bombarded with all these things. I felt very lost. So I said ‘Do you want to go to someone, maybe we can work this out? Maybe we can compromise?’
I never missed my child more than I missed him at that time. From when he was born, I put him to sleep. I put him to sleep 98% of the time, not because I had to…but because I wanted to. To this day, whenever I have him, he falls asleep with me. I go into bed and he’s like, ‘You’re coming to cozy with me?’ and I’m like—yeah…I’m coming.
This is what bothers me. I had my child, basically she took that away from me. Now I’ll have a child who will never forgive us for what we did.”
So that’s how it ended. After a week or two of her silence, they agreed to split custody. Eli had all weekends and summers. This is how I met him in 2010, both of us single parents of boys the same age.
Eli didn’t talk much about his wife who left him. At the time, I was newly divorced, and I moved to Rockland County with my son and began modernizing (driving, college, ooh la la!) Eli’s son and mine were great friends. I loved Yitzy; he had the most contagious giggle fits. Two years of really lovely times before the book hit.
Eli told me that, “until the book came out, I did not believe that I would have more than a page in it.” As it turned out, he was the main villain.
So many of us were incensed. Was it that she lied? A fact-checker would have given her Pinocchio’s nose, sure, but that wouldn’t show the flaw. There was something else. It was the skewed manner in which everything was framed.
Take the pieces I culled to tell you her narrative. She doesn’t relay these moments as forward progression in a march toward freedom. She always frames them as more proof that she’s oppressed, abused, a victim, a hero.
When she befriends the intellectual Mindy and starts sharing a love for reading, we don’t see her start to expand and connect with kindred spirits, but rather, she relays the story to show how even the brightest are crushed because, in the end, Mindy is an “empty shell of her former self” (fuck off). When she gets gifts during her engagement, she is incensed that the jewelry draws too much attention to itself, thus proving how appallingly peasant-like these Hasidic people are. When her husband sprinkles flower petals on the bed as per Hollywood movies, she sees it as a betrayal, because she decides that—feh—he must have gotten the idea from a sibling. When he cleans the kitchen, it’s to get sex. When he doesn’t stop her from attending college, it’s because he is greedy and wants her to make a bunch of money for him. Also, he is only concerned that she should still toil in domestic labor (because he asks if she will still be there to pick Yitzy up from daycare). When he wants to kiss slowly, she pretends to go along with it but starts biting him, feeling fully justified somehow in a counter-attack. When he talks to his sister, he is choosing his sister over her. Even when her obstetrician is nice to her, she perceives it as some kind of nasty indicator that the doctor just wants to suck up to her because as a Hasidic woman, she’ll be a return customer. When she has a car accident, she believes her husband is fully guilty because he did not change the tires before, and she is further convinced of her suffering when he refuses to accept responsibility.
Getting inside Feldman’s head is a character study of dark, empty space. Everything is a vendetta, everything , and it’s all such an intense, dramatic, imaginary crisis that she carries everyone away with it.
This is why readers ended up confused about how she got custody. Feldman breathlessly tells us that on the internet people “warn me that no rabbinical court will let me leave with my son. Even if I were to keep all the laws, I still wouldn’t be considered devout enough to be a parent to my child.”
Notice that she doesn’t even say that she can’t leave with her son. She only quotes from people who say things that fit with her emotional reality. She writes:
“Their comments don’t scare me. I know that I am different from these other women, that I have something they didn’t have. I don’t know how, and I don’t know when, but one day I will be free.”
She probably believes at this point that she is facing down a mountain, as she has a victim mentality. Let’s unpack this with clear eyes: Feldman tells us about her risk by quoting from second-hand sources. Her sources are anonymous internet commentators. Okay, so are they right? They are certainly right that a woman in the clutch of the Hasidic system can almost never detach herself from it and come out whole with her relationship with her children intact. This is because she is economically dependent, socially isolated, and extremely reliant on the community’s educational institutions to help raise the kids. And if her kids are older and have bonds solely in the community, speak Yiddish, and are concerned about status, they become the real reason a woman can’t leave.
Feldman’s situation was not that. She had a young child she was raising in a modern community. Her husband did not use religion and religious authorities to control her (sadly, this is the case for women too often). She had a car and license. She went to college. She had gentile friends. She didn’t even look like “one of us” anymore. By her own telling, she was pretty much out. The only connection she still had to the conservative Hasidic world was that she was still in her arranged marriage. She can get divorced. We are Jews not Catholics; even the internet knows that!
Feldman imagines herself facing the same beasts as women who are much less fortunate than her. When she leaves her marriage by kidnapping her son, she congratulates herself for being braver and better than those pushover oppressed women. She doesn’t acknowledge the advantages she has. She lets the reader think she climbed some mountain that wasn’t there.
She is not a feminist hero. By pretending the undoable is doable, Feldman perpetuates the myth that a woman’s freedom is a matter of her individual resolve. She doesn’t acknowledge that some women will lose custody, that some women can’t pack a Kia up and go. She scoffs at them; she says none of them want big things, only she does, that’s why she left. Her “feminism” is the kind that pretends the solutions lie in individual choices. It is toxic because it implies that, if only women were girdling up in resolve, they’d have it all too. Her world is one of no compassion, of soulless ambition, no moral center. It fills me with dread to imagine that I left the Hasidic community for this value system. It makes me want to pack up a Kia, kidnap a child, and escape it.
In so many ways, my experiences are very different from Feldman’s. However, what we have in common is that we had certain options, aspirations, and advantages that made our exoduses possible. I often try to remember that my needs and fortunes are different from those of my classmates. It helps me put other women’s situations in perspective, and to respect their decisions, even when I have a lot of issues with the patriarchy under which they function. Falsehoods and misrepresentation aside, the real issue that lies at the heart of Unorthodox is Feldman’s lack of empathy for Hasidic women who do not take the same route she did. In dismissing other women as pushovers, Feldman simultaneously dismisses the patriarchy’s role in keeping many women in the fold and her own numerous advantages. Blinded by her own assumed victimhood, anger, and perhaps shame, Feldman creates a world of blame that casts feminism aside for the sake of her own glorification.
Thank you for this review. I have just seen the netflix series and was considering reading the book: I very much appreciated your insight and while now I’m not sure wether I’ll ever read the book, I’ll definitely come back to enquire about a hassidic tour, hopefully soon! Take care!
Out here I am desperately waiting to get out again and meet the good folks who come on my tour.
Hi Frieda, I thoroughly enjoyed your review. I am a Goy but I have always been so interested in learning about the more insular Jewish communities. Reading this book I bought so quickly into the oppression narrative and the self-righteousness. I was speaking to Modern Orthodox Jewish friends and I expressed my horror at the notion of the Mikvah and how oppressive that must be when my two Modern Orthodox Jewish colleagues explained they go to the Mikvah and observe Nida as well. I was so embarrassed about how I thought the behavior to be so medieval and backwards meanwhile my two highly educated women colleagues observe the same practice. It’s easy to “otherize” the Haredim and to make them like a zoo exhibit when really these individuals are humans who deserve more dignified portrayals. After this cursed virus is done I would love to take one of your tours.
Hi Frieda, I thoroughly enjoyed your review.. My sister’s grandson will be bar mitzvah in two years. I hope to take your tour them. I thought the un orthodox flix was a bio. I didn’t realize the German part, her singing was fiction. Have you written a review of the HBO series “OUR SONS” I would love a comparison by your of these two similar series. Which was more realistic ?
Roy – I actually never heard of the show before. I see it’s Israeli/Hebrew. (Looks like they call it “Our Boys” in translation, not “Our Sons”. I watched the trailer and it sounds like a really challenging and intense show. I’m in no position to comment on the Arab Israeli issue (the Orthodox Jews in the series are of a whole different saga than say, Satmar Hasidic Jews in New York City) but I will want to read a bit of contextualizing about it if you find some solid commentary!
Great review!! I agreed with everything you wrote. Putting that aside, I enjoyed reading Feldman’s book and could not put it down although I did not like her at all.
As for “Unorthodox,” I don’t even know where to begin but I will start with the most obvious; it was boring. It had a stiff feeling. No character development.
I’m always suspicious of a writer who has nothing good to say about anyone or anything as well as one constantly seeking my admiration.
Love Shtisel which is everything the book and movie are not.
I get not being able to put her book down. I used to devour every “leaving” or “becoming-me” memoir there was out there. It’s becoming much harder to read these stories now, as I become a much more critical reader.
Very well said, brava! I’m half-way through the book and really wanted to like it, but I keep thinking, “wow, this woman sees herself as a victim!” and “geesh, she is so judgmental of the people around her.” Frankly, Deborah Feldman comes across as self-absorbed and lacking compassion. I went on Goodreads to see other reviews, wondering if I was the only reader who felt this way. Apparently not. Good memoirs include self-reflection and growth; the best memoirists show their vulnerable side, their pain, their shame, and all their messiness, even when it reflects poorly on them. Here, Feldman only shows how victimized she was, how she was meant for greater things, how nobody understands her—the poor girl. The problem is she doesn’t dig deeper. She doesn’t have empathy for others (e.g., Mindy). She is ungrateful for all the things she does have. And she comes across as callous and superficial (e.g., comparing gifts). How can readers like such a person? I heard one writer in an interview say that the reason readers get so worked up over some books is that they could have been really good books. We readers can see so clearly what the problems are and it’s frustrating for us that the author got it so wrong. This story has such potential. After reading your review, I think she should have just changed all the names, added a few subplots for dramatic tension, and then called it fiction, because that’s basically what it is!
Such a good comment. It’s a shame that most readers so badly want to like the book, that they will forgive anything. There is a cycle then; the readers encourage authors to write superficial stories, the writers stop being introspective and can be quite narcissistic, and then the reader’s preconceived biases is confirmed by these books, which makes them applaud it, encouraging more of the same… I think it’s extremely important to be fair readers, have some forgiveness, but also read critically. It’s too rare!
I’m getting towards the end of the book. I am reading it for my book club and underlined several passages to discuss where Deborah came across as very narcissistic, self-centered and materialistic. She talks quite a bit about how pretty she is, how people flirted with her, etc. I thought that maybe she was writing this from a place of self-awareness and towards the end would reveal how she knows how silly it was to act that way. I’m sadly realizing that her self-awareness is never going to come and that she really is just a narcissist with a victim mentality.
I think you pretty much summed it up. The red flags and signs are there, everywhere…
hi, thank you so much-you really helped clarify my thoughts. i read the book and i wish i had not. i am hassidic myself and was very bothered by the portrayal of our lifestyle which is totally erroneous. The whole way along I was wondering how anybody could believe someone who`d acted so deviously her whole life. I also wondered why she was acting so horribly towards her husband-like she never even gave him a chance and then painted him as the bad one. it also disturbed me terribly the way she was disconnected to her son, as a mother myself i wonder how cold you have to be to state that openly. I am hassidic and blissfully happy. yes, i agree i had a good family life-but i`ve had my fair share of challenges including abuse. still i made the best of my life and most of all reached out for help when i needed it-in or outside of my family. it`s really strange that she was so `wordly` yet had no clue or knowledge of sex at all-nor did she bother to try and understand the sanctity and the happiness a proper marriage could bring. nor do you have to bash a whole community just to suit your purpose-it is selfish and creates unfair misconceptions. there may be issues that could be resolved-but you could say the same for every lifestyle-i do not feel restricted or missing out in any way, i am proud to be who i am and it is unfair to call us pushovers just because we are happy to live this way.
A lot of comments from you and others claiming ‘this is wrong and that is wrong’ well…the book is about her point of view. Absolutely no one knows anything about a marriage, aside from the only 2 people involved in it. Perhaps some points in the book are embellished or even non factual but that is an authors right, when writing about their own lives. Hopefully other people’s experiences of living in a similar or even the same community are more positive but again…everyone is different and will feel & interpret their own experiences in their own way.
If you are going to review a book. Such as Unorthodox; please spell words correctly. Rose petals, are not rose pedals. They are not gas pedals in a car, or on a bicycle. It does not look good to someone who is reading your review. That is Unorthodox. Kindly check spelling before writing.
Hello M G. I’ve tried to edit the mistakes. But in my defense, spelling is not my gift. See my creative writig essay from years ago to get a sense of how bad it can get with me. This is me after a lot of edits and effort!
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THE SCANDALOUS REJECTION OF MY HASIDIC ROOTS
by Deborah Feldman ‧ RELEASE DATE: Feb. 14, 2012
A remarkable tale told somewhat unremarkably.
A young woman’s coming-of-age and escape from a sect of Hasidic Judaism.
In her debut memoir, Feldman recounts the many struggles endured while growing up within a particularly orthodox branch of Hasidic Judaism. The daughter of mentally unstable parents, the author was raised by her Hasidic grandparents, whose allegiance to their religious and cultural traditions often proved problematic for the young Feldman. Cloistered from the secular world, the author’s pinhole-sized view of New York kept her at a continual disadvantage, providing a singular narrative for understanding the world beyond her neighborhood. As she matured, Feldman became more aware of the inner turmoil “brewing madly between my own thoughts and the teachings I was absorbing.” As she continued to question her faith, she soon recognized the tyrannical aspects of the traditions, the culmination of which led to an arranged marriage for her and another young Hasid, Eli. Despite the sect’s blessing, the marriage soon faltered, primarily due to sexual problems spurred by an utter lack of knowledge by both partners. The Hasidic community’s uncompromising insularity rendered the young couple woefully unprepared for their relationship, as well as the parental responsibilities that followed soon after. After Eli continued to place his strict observance of Judaic tradition above the health of his pregnant wife, Feldman acknowledged her own unimportance in their relationship. Having endured her second-class citizenship long enough, she took her child and fled to the outside world, basking in her newfound liberty. It was a bold move, but Feldman doesn’t fully capture the significance of her departure.
Pub Date: Feb. 14, 2012
Page Count: 272
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online: Oct. 25, 2011
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2011
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR | GENERAL BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
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by Deborah Feldman
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BOOK TO SCREEN
THE 48 LAWS OF POWER
by Robert Greene ‧ RELEASE DATE: Sept. 1, 1998
If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.
The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.
Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.
Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998
Page Count: 430
Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998
GENERAL BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR | BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR | PHILOSOPHY & RELIGION | PSYCHOLOGY | HISTORICAL & MILITARY
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by Robert Greene
by Elie Wiesel & translated by Marion Wiesel ‧ RELEASE DATE: Jan. 16, 2006
The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...
Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children.
He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions.
Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006
Page Count: 120
Publisher: Hill & Wang
Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR | HOLOCAUST | HISTORY | GENERAL BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR | GENERAL HISTORY
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by Elie Wiesel ; edited by Alan Rosen
by Elie Wiesel ; illustrated by Mark Podwal
by Elie Wiesel ; translated by Marion Wiesel
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The Inevitable Lies of Unorthodox
Shaul magid on netflix’s unorthodox.
Unorthodox appears at a strangely opportune time. The world, or some part of it, seems increasingly curious about Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy. The celebrated series Shtisl , a masterful study of an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem, has gone viral. Ultra-Orthodox communities that refrained from social distancing in the COVID-19 pandemic continue to make international news. The exotic nature of a community that is uncanny, both familiar and utterly strange, has become a curiosity for Jews and non-Jews alike.
The series, of course, is not about ultra-Orthodoxy per se but a personal tale – whose exhilarating and tragic story-line is now somewhat weathered – of a person who flees ultra-Orthodoxy suddenly and without notice to “find herself” in what her community views simply as “evil culture” ( tarbut ra ). As opposed to Shtisl , a series that focuses on the tribulations and complexity of living inside that world, Unorthodox is focused on finding an exit.
Esty’s one-dimensional Williamsburg shows its strengths and its weaknesses. Even as she prepares to leave with no prospect of return, she holds part of that world close to her heart; she defends it even as she castigates it; she smiles when Yael knows what kugel is, “Jewish food,” she says. This is part of Esty’s dilemma: Williamsburg is a constructed “world” that cares deeply for her as it slowly suffocates her. A world where she is both embraced and effaced. That world can never quite tolerate her difference, inherited from her mother, and also never admit the deep fallacy that constructs such difference. It cannot face its own failure to intervene and save Esty’s mother from her errant and drunken father. That world, under perennial siege, will always choose social cohesion, even at the expense of its members. Secrecy overrides truth. Survival necessarily has its casualties.
Secrets of deviance are all over the series; the secret of saving her father from shame by banishing her mother; Moishe’s secret of living a double life; her grandmother’s secret of loving classical music and also hiding the fact that she received a call from the runaway Esty, as if it were a dream. Esty’s mother’s secret of having Esty taken away from her instead of the community’s falsehood that she abandoned her. Yanky’s secret of sleeping with a prostitute; and Esty’s secret about her pregnancy. In an enclave, yet living in close proximity to a culture it labels simply as “evil,” secrets are inevitable, because deviance is inevitable, because human beings, unlike Temple sacrifices, are not pure. What matters in such a world is not that people never stray; what matters is that when they return they leave their stories behind. That world needs the lie to survive.
Perhaps the biggest secret of all, though, is the way the ultra-Orthodox community depicted here constructs itself as if it were sui generis . When Esty blurts out in the car that she lost half her family in the concentration camps, the Israeli woman Yael turns to her and says, “Most families in Israel lost half their families in the camps, but we must move on.” Esty looks shocked because she recognizes in Yael’s comment that the Nazis did not only kill “real” Jews, but any Jews. The trauma of the Holocaust runs so deep in the ultra-Orthodox world even, or precisely, because it is not spoken about. That all kinds of Jews were murdered is, and must remain, a secret, because if it doesn’t, what essentially separates Esty from Yael? And when one of her Berlin friends notes that he too was raised by his grandparents like Esty, she realizes that others share experiences she thought were all her own, that people are all products of complex situations, prejudices, and challenges. Esty learns in Berlin that she does not carry trauma alone, and sees how others move beyond their personal traumas without holding onto the false secret of uniqueness. The secret of the ultra-Orthodox “world” is that it hides from its young that they are not really that different from anyone else. It is precisely holding onto the lie of that categorical difference that prevents that world from being swallowed up by that which always threatens it: the outside. Esty longs to be swallowed up, she longs to free herself from the lie that is killing her, the secret that will be the altar upon which her newborn will be sacrificed.
Moishe’s rage toward Esty and her mother is that they have done what he could not; fully enter into a world that is not “evil” but simply another iteration of human collective existence. Or perhaps more accurately, he could never quite recognize that there is evil in both worlds. He has to prove to himself that the outside is only evil by feeding on the underbelly of society. Moishe’s secret is not only that he hides himself in his black attire under a Yankees cap but that he is tortured by his own weakness and faithlessness. And of course, the rabbi knows that, which is why he chooses Moishe to take the trip. He knows that Moishe is a defiled being; but the rabbi will now use the profane to benefit the holy. Moishe knows better; he has been out there, the outside is inside him, eating him alive, he knows there is little chance of bringing her back. But Moishe will have some fun along the way and try to make Esty feel as miserable as he does before he leaves her behind. Unlike Moishe, Esty is already free in part because she is already banished; not because of her resolve, but because their world already closed the door behind her. In truth, they only really want her baby. Moishe says as much when he stumbles into the hotel, “We’ll be back for the baby.” Communal survival is everything.
U northodox is a very good illustration of the fantasy of that so-called “world” as it buttresses another world entirely. But the more it steps outside, the more the fantasy collapses. The sense of power that drives the male elite dissipates once one ventures outside Williamsburg. Moishe acts like a denuded superhero, as Esty’s mother says to him: “This is not your world, you have no power here,” which, of course, he knows is true. The powerlessness of ultra-Orthodoxy comes into full view the more the two hapless Hasidim stroll the streets of Berlin on a mission they know they cannot win because it is not on their turf. Berlin, of all places. Esty’s mother loses her because she did not move far enough away. But she gives her daughter the necessary papers to emigrate to Germany in their last meeting: “In case you should need this,” she says—the irony being that a Jew’s safe haven is the very place that tried to eradicate the Jews seventy years before.
Berlin is clearly more Esty’s fantasy than a real place. Its colorful landscape, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural façade, its friendliness and beauty are all the opposite of the dank and drab greyness that is, in her mind, Williamsburg. Or the diabolical Berlin of the 1940s. Can this really be the city that killed her family? Is her Arab Yemenite friend related to those who try to kill Jews on Israeli buses? Every moment in Berlin is iconoclastic, erasing her world, and its need for secrets.
She cannot seem to have sex, which makes her dispensable in the Hasidic community where she lives but is irrelevant to her new cadre of friends. In Esty’s Berlin there is no talk of children, only of art. Esty suffers the humiliation of double marginalization, an orphan and sexually frigid. She acknowledges her first marginalization early on when she says to Yanky: “I am different,” to which he replies, “Different is good.” But Yanky knows that is not true, not in their world, and she does too. Difference is not good. Different is dangerous, difference is forbidden. Who are different? The “goyim” are different. What matters most is to keep the communal organism alive, and that requires two things: fidelity above all else to the community and children. She has neither and thus by the time she leaves, she is already gone.
Unorthodox does not have the complexity or character development of Shtisl or other like-minded productions. Its story is well-worn. But Unorthodox does tell us something about enclaves and about communities that think they are worlds. A community, like Williamsburg, that prides itself on truth (“God’s seal is truth,” says scripture) must be laced through with lies, almost by definition, and of necessity. Such demands of conformity require the lie to survive.
While Unorthodox offers a largely negative portrayal of the ultra-Orthodox community in Williamsburg, one can easily come away with a somewhat sympathetic view as well. Williamsburg or, as Esty puts it, “the community where I come from,” is a “world” whose beliefs and values conflict with the world around them. They are thus in a state of perpetual siege and carry the fear of two millennia of persecution with few tools to move beyond it. In many ways, it is the persecution that enables it to continue. And thus such a world becomes inevitably enmeshed in a web of secrets.
And yet Esty is able to show Berlin the beauty of “her community” through her heartfelt rendition of a Hasidic wedding song at her audition. When she sings the Hasidic wedding niggun without preparation, it outshines Schubert’s “An die Musik,” her first song in the audition. It outshines Berlin, and it illumines the darkness of all the secrets and lies of her life. In that moment she discovers and communicates the beauty of her world in all its raw tragedy and desperate hope. But for her to bring forth that beauty, for her to experience it truly, she has to leave it because “it is not proper for a woman to sing in front of men.” The voice of a woman, like so much else, must be kept secret.
Esty Shapiro leapt off the precipice. Or was she pushed? Either way, Unorthodox shines in the dark, and shows the luminal darkness that flashes through the light. As my Rosh Yeshiva says, “It thinks it’s a world.” But without that fantasy, it has little chance of survival.
Shaul Magid is professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and a contributing editor to Tablet Magazine . His forthcoming book is Meir Kahane: An American Jewish Radical with Princeton University Press.
My Scandalous Rejection of Unorthodox
- By Naomi Seidman
- Summer 2020
Unorthodox dropped on Netflix on March 26, but the online ex-Orthodox community had already been speculating about it for weeks. It took a day or two for us to binge-watch the four episodes, and then the postmortem began. The series recounts the escape of Esther Shapiro (“Esty,” played by Shira Haas), a 19-year-old newly married woman, from the Hasidic community in Williamsburg to a new secular life in Berlin. Haas, who played Ruchama Weiss on Shtisel , seems to be carving out a niche for herself in ultra-Orthodox roles. In fact, it was a little startling to see her wishing her fans a happy Passover along with others in the cast of Shtisel from her Tel Aviv quarantine, wearing casual clothes instead of an ankle-length skirt.
The OTD (off the derekh —that is, no longer on the Orthodox path) social media groups include people from backgrounds as diverse as the Orthodox world itself, and only a few of us have deep and direct knowledge of Satmar, the Hasidic community ostensibly portrayed in the series. (The unnamed Hasidic community of the show more closely resembles smaller, more intimate groups, where a Rebbe might come to a Hasid’s home to discuss a family problem.) But all of us have gone through some version of the transformation Unorthodox dramatizes, and we gobble down and fiercely debate every new OTD memoir that hits the shelves, every documentary and movie that comes out. Our small tribe of defectors is certainly not the intended audience for this growing genre, but we are its collective subject, so we obsess over what they get right (a bit of Yiddish dialect, the right kerchief) and what they get wrong (see below). Call it the problem of OTD translation. We need to explain ourselves: to “outsiders,” where we come from; to old friends and family (to the extent that we can still talk to them), where we’ve gone. As with all acts of translation and leave-taking, something gets lost, someone betrayed.
A small example: In the 2012 memoir from which this show is loosely adapted, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots , Deborah Feldman calls her grandmother “Bubby,” the pronunciation most common among Ashkenazi American Jews at whom the book is aimed. But Esty, in the series, calls her grandmother “Bobby,” as I called my own. “Accuracy” hardly captures the effect this had on me, the gratitude I felt toward the series (more particularly, to Eli Rosen, its Yiddish translator and cultural consultant) for getting that little thing right. Who knew a vowel could break your heart?
I wasn’t the only one in a state. The days after Unorthodox hit saw a burst of writing on the Facebook groups, particularly by formerly Hasidic women—posts describing what it feels like to shave your head and then to finally and gloriously stop shaving it, kallah classes gone awry, mikvah stories, Hasidic wedding photos, descriptions of awkward first-night sex. There was even a mention or two of vaginismus—Esty’s condition, which makes sex painful for her and complicates the consummation of her marriage. I spend a lot of time in OTD groups, and I’ve never seen such raw writing.
Lots of people with a less personal stake in the subject were also talking about the show’s portrayal of Hasidic Williamsburg. In the Los Angeles Times , Meredith Blake published a piece titled “Netflix’s Unorthodox Went to Remarkable Lengths to Get Hasidic Jewish Customs Right,” praising the writer and director for their commitment to authenticity and describing Eli Rosen’s involvement. (Among other things, he taught Haas how to speak what most people heard as a convincing Satmar Yiddish; Rosen, a regular in the OTD groups, also plays the rabbi.) In a glowing review, New York Times television critic James Poniewozik also weighed in:
There’s an otherworldliness to “Unorthodox,” a credit to how well the director, Maria Schrader (also of the “Deutschland” series), visualizes both Williamsburg and Berlin. The dialogue hopscotches among Yiddish, English, and German; the scenes among the Hasidim are essentially period pieces, meticulously designed and costumed. There’s a sense, which Esty must feel, that the series takes place simultaneously in the past and the future.
After such baselessly confident judgments, it was a relief to hear from Frieda Vizel, who, as someone who left the Satmar community, knows better than Blake or Poniewozik whether Unorthodox did, in fact, “get Hasidic Jewish customs right.” Writing in the Forward, Vizel pointed out that the broken eruv that plays a pivotal role in the first episode, and which is cited by Poniewozik as a symbol for the almost invisible “high walls” that keep Esty in (until they don’t), is an obviously invented plot device. Satmar—along with many other haredi communities—generally doesn’t “hold by” the eruv. But for those viewers with just enough knowledge of Jewish practices to have heard of an eruv, this manufactured plot detail presumably allowed them to imagine themselves in the know.
It’s easy to pass this off as a minor quibble, an inaccuracy easily forgiven for the sake of the larger artistic vision, the symbolism Poniewozik sees in the eruv as the border of the community. But for Vizel, these small inaccuracies are symptoms of a much bigger, if less easily pinpointed, problem. What the show gets wrong, she argues, is basically everything:
I don’t recognize the Unorthodox world where people are cold, humorless, and obsessed with following the rules. Of course, bad people exist in the Hasidic community, and I am critical of many of its practices, but that doesn’t mean everyone goes about muted, serious, drawn, fulfilling the rules and mentioning the Holocaust.
This last part made me laugh. By some kind of cultural contagion, a set of conventions seems to have developed for presenting the Orthodox world onscreen ( Shtisel is a notable exception): not only the garb and the song and dance and “sea of black” but also ponderous language, weird utterances, and sepia tones, as if Orthodox Jews lived by candlelight, parsing out stern and sagacious words like rabbinic Yodas or Mr. Spocks. I can attest that the last kitchens in America still lit by fluorescent lights are in Hasidic homes.
It’s just this ponderous quality that Poniewozik was so taken by, the feeling that he was watching a “period piece,” an “otherworldly” combination of past and present that signaled that he was in the presence of “authentic” Hasidism.
While Poniewozik praises director Maria Schrader’s visualization of both Hasidic Williamsburg and contemporary Berlin, the focus on accuracy and authenticity, in his and other reviews, is directed almost entirely at Brooklyn. How did Berlin get off the hook so easily?
Walking in on the scene in which Esty hangs out with a group of music students in the kitchen of their conservatory dorm, my son asked if I was watching reality TV. I could see why; the talented, diverse, outspoken, and sexy young housemates bantering in front of a mural of a tropical beach were as visibly curated, as fabulously and uniformly beautiful and young as the cast of a Coke commercial. He wasn’t the only one who noticed. Along with memories of Hasidic marriages, the OTD groups were full of wry commentary on the ease and speed with which Esty finds her remarkable friends, the young German she gets into bed with, and the teacher and students who help plan her conservatory audition. Was it just me, or was it hard to follow how much time had passed between Esty’s dramatic flight to Berlin and the climactic audition near the end of the fourth episode? A few days? Weeks? Is that really how long it takes to go through the admissions process at a German musical conservatory? And, as someone dryly commented on an OTD Facebook group, “Where were the sexual predators?” She didn’t need to elaborate; we all knew about the dangers of those uncertain first steps “off the derekh .”
I suppose it makes no sense to ask whether the Berlin we see in Unorthodox is “authentic.” The music conservatory that is the story’s major setting is, after all, a complete invention on the part of the writers. In Making Unorthodox, a short documentary appended to the series, the producer, Anna Winger, describes their intention to present an “aspirational” version of Berlin, one very different from the Berlin of Deborah Feldman’s own experience. Feldman moved to Berlin with her young son only years after leaving Williamsburg; Esty makes the great leap in a day. So, that leaves only one context measured for its accuracy by the critics, one scrutinized for its curious customs and strange rituals. What would it mean to investigate and present the sexual habits of that group of people in Berlin, the details of their mating rituals?
This is not to say that we see no sex in Berlin. One scene finds Esty in what looks like the sexiest dance club in Berlin, and the group Esty falls in with includes a gay Nigerian cellist and his blond boyfriend. It isn’t surprising that Esty herself soon gets swept up in a tender (if initially awkward) love scene with the sensitive and hunky Robert in the final scene of episode 3. But the credits roll before we can see how far they get. When episode 4 dawns, they are still in bed, Robert asleep in the morning light. It seems entirely possible that the couple has had sex (though “made love” seems the right euphemism for this gauzy scene). Esty’s vaginismus, perhaps, is cured by Robert’s soft gaze and hard chest, by the ethereal glory of classical music or the pounding techno-rock at the club, or by the same Lake Wannsee current that carried off her wig. Or maybe not. She gets out of bed, wearing a bra and the skirt she was wearing the night before.
There is nothing remarkable about this modestly averted gaze, the cutaway from the tousled bed; we’ve seen those camera angles, heard that music before. In contrast, there is nothing usual, or normal, about all the earlier sex scenes in episode 3, which devote excruciating attention to Esty and Yanky’s year of failed marital sex: Nothing is left to the imagination. A kallah teacher mimes intercourse with her fingers and demonstrates the use of menstrual cloths, we have ample opportunity to witness what Hasidim wear to bed, Esty is handed a tube of lubricant (by her mother-in-law!), and the kallah teacher measures her anxiety with some sort of medical device and hands her a kit of something called “dilators” (look it up, or use your imagination). Esty and Yanky try again and again, and each time is more awful to watch. If these are sex scenes, they are of an entirely different species than the tender Berlin lovemaking. Name another reference to vaginismus in popular culture.
It’s worth pointing out that this shockingly direct depiction of sex—with its odd fusion of the clinical, the ethnographic, and the pornographic—is trained on what surely must be one of the most sexually modest communities in the world. I say “odd” because the prurience of Unorthodox is not Netflix’s familiar pop culture prurience. It’s a pornography not of sex but of sexlessness, of sex denuded of the glamor of what we might as well call Berlin sex, a sex hedged by Jewish law and the imperative to procreate. But this sexless sex is also, apparently, the most exciting sex, because it is so hidden.
Unorthodox ’s quasi-ethnographic depiction of what is often described as “an insular community” is also odd, also distorted, insofar as it is driven by sexual curiosity and shaped by the conventions of an escape narrative. Only someone who was on the inside but is now on the outside could ever truly know, and would ever dream of describing, what Feldman’s autobiography and the show attempt to describe. This is an ethnography of horror, which plays and replays the backwardness of its subjects, confirming at the same time the sublimity and joy and freedom and light of modern secular lives, at least as “aspirationally” imagined. It’s a gaze that sees everything except its own hungry eye at the keyhole.
While odd , it’s not entirely unprecedented. Modern Jewish literature began with something like OTD memoirs, which right from the start performed a similar strip show for an enlightened audience. Salomon Maimon’s 1793 Autobiography contains both the earliest literary record of the nascent Hasidic movement and a deep dive into the autobiographer’s years of unconsummated marital sex. (To be fair, he was still a young teenager.) A few decades later, Mordecai Aaron Günzburg’s Aviezer provided even more graphic detail not only about his impotence as a newlywed but also about his mother-in-law’s attempts to “cure” him with near-lethal concoctions. Were the Jewish Enlightenment autobiography not an entirely male phenomenon, we might have seen some vaginismus. In these memoirs, something of Jewish law, its minute attention to the body, was brought to bear on the very different literary genre of the autobiography. These, too, were translations, shaped by the expectations of their readers as much as by their subjects. It’s worth noting that Maimon escaped Poland for the same city Esty chose two and a half centuries later and that he published his autobiography in German, not Hebrew. Even then, exotic Jews were a hot commodity.
There is a passage toward the end of Deborah Feldman’s memoir where she first figures this out. She’s working on an application to an adult education program at Sarah Lawrence as part of a much more gradual defection from the Satmar community than portrayed in the series (but try selling that story to Netflix). “I prepare the essays in advance, handwriting them before typing them up. The first two are autobiographical. I think to myself, This is my shtick. I gotta use whatever I got .” I got into a doctoral program at Berkeley at least partly on the strength of my own OTD story. A lot of us use whatever we got.
In Making Unorthodox, actress Shira Haas grasps for words to describe the power of the story in which she stars, finally settling on the insight, which she delivers with glistening eyes, that it is about “the right to have your own voice.” She was probably thinking of the audition scene: Esty begins by singing a Schubert lied but closes more powerfully by singing a Hasidic wedding song, the very one sung at her wedding, “ Mi ban si’ach .” Unorthodox , Haas seems to be saying, is a story of empowerment and individuality, of discovering one’s own voice. Does it matter that this ideal of “finding one’s own voice” has the ring to my ear of the Sarah Lawrence classroom, the Berlin (or Tel Aviv) coffeehouse? It’s in phrases like this one that the OTD story finds an accessible narrative frame that translates (Hasidic) treason into (secular) bravery, (family) abandonment into (individual) empowerment, the mess of human relationships into an epic tale of universal appeal.
And what does Esty sing in this voice that is her own? A Hasidic song from the community left behind. This Hasidic music is also her deepest truth, despite the powerful attraction she thinks she feels to classical music, despite the desperate escape she has made from the community where such songs are sung. Or maybe Esty saw something as clearly as Deborah Feldman did: As a pianist, she didn’t have a chance; even as a singer, the main thing she had going was the story that explained her choice of “ An die musik ” as her grandmother’s secret favorite. “Why secret?” the judge asks, and her chances for admission skyrocket.
Maybe, just maybe, Esty heard that question and saw her shot. The only way forward was through the one thing she had that everyone wanted, the story of the “insular community” she had left behind. Even the Hasidic song was only what it was because it came with this story of a woman finally allowed to sing, a secret finally “scandalously” shared. Do you believe Esty is too naïve for such calculations? That’s only because she has to be, because only an Esty above calculation lets the secular viewer off the hook. Only an utterly naïve Esty—which is to say a truly authentic Esty—can obscure the nature of the queasy transaction that is the OTD narrative.
By the decision of moving from memoir to fiction, the creators of Unorthodox clearly chose to move away from the contours of the memoir into the world of Netflix art. The show provides, for me at least, precisely what Shira Haas (who, of course, had no role in writing the screenplay) identifies as a moment when a vulnerable young woman comes into her own. The delicious irony of that moment coming through Esty singing a traditional wedding song perhaps connects her back to that world, perhaps in a way similar to that of the generation of Yiddish speaking American comedians who held onto their past even as they moved squarely into America.
As for the harsh characterization of the Satmar community, I've read a couple of OTD types criticizing the extent to which these folks are unfairly portrayed as narrow-minded and humorless. As a total outsider to the Satmar community, I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on that score. But, nevertheless, these are OTD types, having left that world behind for reasons of their own, have their own gripes, else why leave? Perhaps the world awaits the most authentic representation of that world that will elicit the fewest complaints from the OTD types.
Meanwhile, on the other hand, I note that we non-Orthodox types do experience more than a bit of Schadenfruede over our opportunity to watch what we are led to believe are authentic Hasidic tropes unfolding before our eyes, especially joyless sex. This show has been recommended to me so often, that whenever someone even opens their mouth to recommend a Nextflix show, I know the next word will be "Unorthodox," followed by "Shtisl."
Far from being "invented out of thin air," wishing mourners a long life is a standard custom in British Jewry. Which, I suppose, shows the tightrope one walks in translating one culture, or sub-culture of a sub-culture, to another.
Thank you for your excellent discussion, both for spelling out what so bothered me about Unorthodox as a theatrical production (perhaps more suited to Lifetime than Netflix) and for describing——based on knowledge that comes from personal experience and scholarship——what they got wrong .
You would need a real tin ear for Jewish history to portray Germany as any sort of promised land for any Jew, much less one whose civilization was grotesquely destroyed almost in its entirety by this country. So whether the series gets this or that ritual right should be besides the point.
Wendell Berry explains his admiration for the Amish by saying that they have rejected the blandishments of Modernity in order to preserve values which they prize as central to a life well-lived. They have, so to speak, chosen to chose what serves their way of life and what doesn't. This in contrast to the majority society in which an ethos of "creative destruction" and constant innovation--in which anything which can be done will be done, if it be at all profitable--relentlessly revolutionizes values, often degrading and eroding them in the process. The Ultra-orthodox have also chosen to chose, although their choices, in respect of details, have been different than the Amish--attitudes towards modern technology, for example. Regardless, these dissenters from modern life deserve our respect. They are traveling a tough road in order to preserve a spiritual vision of life's possibilities that the rest of us have thrown, willy-nilly, to the wind. In that sense, the Ultra-orthodox help to keep "less observant" and secular Jewry grounded. Although the range of Jewish spirituality is broad, we need somebody to live out the full Judaic religious/cultural synthesis--Judaism as a total way of life. Without that to refer to, so to speak, we risk dissolving in the soup of multi-culti America , our candle lighting, our renewal movements, our Torah study groups just added ingredients spicing things up a little bit. I'm not advocating that we all become Ultra-orthodox. They don't have all the answers. But, we should acknowledge a debt of gratitude to them and the key role they play in the on-goingness of Jewish life in America. Part of doing that is resisting narratives, even ones generating by other Jews, in which the Ultra-orthodox are seen as only oppressive, enforcing a rigid conformism in which individuals have no voices of their own. We can argue endlessly about how true that is, or is not. The testimony of people within these groups as well as OTDs is vital in this. But let's not forget that in the final analysis, Ultra-orthodox communities were formed originally to pursue transcendental goals. Only their members can tell us if attaining states of transcendence--of spiritual flight--are still a living possibility, or if it has been ossified by Weberian "routinization". It's interesting, in that light, that the truly transcendent moment in Unorthodox is not when Esty finally gets herself free at the end, but when, during her audition, she switches from the classical repertory to a Hasidic song, full of longing and a kind of melancholy joy. Her performance is heart-rending. Might we infer that that song, so expressive of the world she comes from, is her true voice?
Ever since Potok's books came out, I have been struck by the lack of depiction of joy and socializing, in popular fiction about the Orthodox world. In "The Chosen," an eligible, employed widower and son are alone, week after week, shabbat after shabbat, looking out the window at the rain, drinking tea. No one invites them, and they have no company. Even in "Shtisel," which is much more realistic, we don't see the constant visiting and bringing people home from shul that are such a part of Orthodox life in all communities. Where are the guests, the people in the community who are always guests (older singles) and passed from house to house, the friends of the children and the friends of friends?
Excellent analysis. Brava, Naomi! Hasidism is being trotted out for public display because it's one of the last worlds that is truly closed off. And in the process of being "ethnographically" explored, the series confirms all the stereotypes and dark suspicions the 'enlightened' world already held about the backward Jews and their hellish world. Because that is what sells. The comparison with Salomon Maimon's autobiography is spot on!
Luftmentsch beat me to it with the comment above. The wish that a mourner have a long life, so prevalent in Britain, is now often Hebraized as "hayim arukim", although I can remember when it was only said in English. I suspect that the original Hebrew equivalent, from which the expression derived, was the Sephardic blessing "tizkeh leshanim rabot"
There is the added and uncomfortable issue that UNORTHODOX posits that cosmopolitan Berlin represents a viable future for Jews longing to be free, rather than Israel. The German director Maria Schrader indicates that the music conservatory represents her aspirational vision of post-war Germany with people coming together from all over the world to create beautiful music, including a musician of course from Israel, who turns out to lack any social skills as she cuts the heroine Esty to the quick with her cruel critique of her musical talent. I found the implicit anti-Zionist and anti-national bias coming from a German director, no matter how liberal, to be rather rich. The real truth is that without the Israeli actress, Shira Haas, there would have been no UNORTHODOX.
Awesome article. "Name another reference to vaginismus in popular culture." Sex Education, Season 2, Episode 8.
Echoing Edward Abrahams's comment above, I also felt very uncomfortable with the a-historical nature of this series. It has echoes of "White Man's Burden"-style white saviorism. Compare it, for example, to NPR reporter Sarah Vowell in "This American Life" episode, in which she traces her Cherokee ancestors' expulsion from Georgia by Andrew Jackson (https://www.thisamericanlife.org/107/trail-of-tears). The reporter is not shy about criticizing her community's flaws, but she constantly and rightly points out that many of those blemishes were caused or exacerbated by unrelenting persecution. She also tries to show the human dimension of her ancestors, and tell their story in their own terms. Unorthodox does not attempt any of this. The history of why some Hasidics sects mistrust the outside world and modern culture is never explored. The photo above, of Esty standing beatifically in the Wannsee, is particularly ridiculous, considering that it's only feet away from the villa where Hitler and his henchmen planned the Final Solution (the "Wannsee Conference"). It would be like filming Sarah Vowell joyfully casting off tribal regalia, and diving into a swimming pool at the Andrew Jackson Estate.
The praise this series has garnered seems to me a symptom of the fact that oppression of Jews is often invisible to the progressive left. For whatever reason, Jews aren't allowed in the intersectional tent.
Jay D. Homnick
I confess that I stopped reading OTD literature very shortly after I started. The pain was too searing, my powerlessness too abasing. But the threshold each such work must overcome is: why should I believe the community - or the Torah itself - is the problem, rather than your own family or yourself?
Thus the need to establish a narrative of congregational villainy as a backdrop to the courageous escape artist making a run for it "towards the light".
This story comes with an added irony: the early struggles of lovers to overcome technical or psychological barriers to sex can add up to a poignant moment in their journey. I know many couples who believe they bonded more deeply because they lovingly carried each other through the desert, on the way to the Promised Land...
Back in 1980-81, I was paired with a Satmar study partner for several months and I got a sense of how his marriage functioned. There was definitely a charm there, a kind of innocence. I wouldn't romanticize it nor would I demonize it, but it was certainly not oppressive.
The whole genre of OTD literature is a real insight, not into the Orthodox community, but to the public desire to see that last isolated stronghold breached. Needless to say, I never recognize the world I live in in these book. We are a community in a world that sorely lacks community (look up loneliness epidemic). We are a community that focuses of family, on relationships, on study, on joy, on collective sorrow and most of all the struggle to make the grind of life meaningful. We are far from perfect (if we were that would by definition be the messianic times) but we are human. We deserve the right to be depicted as deeply human, not as dark fantasies of the secular mind.
OTD people are by deffiniton those who suffered, sometimes from the community writ large but in the vast majority of cases through their own issues or at the hand of loved ones. Instead of treating their writings as facts about the whole community, we need to read them as a highly colored account which seeks to reframe their own struggles as one of overcoming and eventually becoming "free." We all create such narratives of our lives but OTD people unfortunately use the rest of us as their grind stone.
There is also something else that is unspoken when OTD people try to explain their journey--temptation. By temptation I mean simple human temptation in all its many forms. It's like the classic story with the Orthodox kid who went to college and met a beautiful non-Jewish girl. All of the sudden he finds himself filled with doubts about his lifestyle, filled with sorry memories of his "repressed" youth. What comes first in many cases--the doubts or the girl? Why must we believe all these accounts of "personal liberation" when they could simply be a complete surrender to what they want?
Likewise the OTD genre is by definition very self selecting. It usually shows the ones that made it far enough to write a book. It doesn't show the many that go OTD but find their way back or those who simply self destruct. I only know a handful of OTD people--yet ALL of them hit rock bottom, suffered severe substance abuse, some tempted suicide (one succeeded) and had terrible relationships. I remember hearing my father often lament that in the past kids went OTD for the GREAT idea--be it Zionism, revolutionary communism or be a great artist or even to make LOTS of money. But today, he would say, they go OTD beast of "whatever", to do drugs or the like. Where are the philosophers like Miamon or the poets like Bialik to name two famous OTDs. It sometimes looks like the last successful generation of OTD kids was in the 1970s. Even the few examples of relative success seem like bundles of emotional mess when interviewed.
To say that all to often OTDs complete breakdown is is because of lack of training in the Orthodox community about drugs and the like is silly. We are trained day and night that we cannot eat this or that, cannot do this or that. We have build masses of muscle memory and true grit regarding refraining from this or that. All that should carry over but it doesn't. To say it was because the community at large rejected them, that parents threw them from home is nonsense. OTD kids in 2020 get super sensitive treatment. The OTD kids I knew were living at home, their parents lovingly making space for a kid that break every rule and broke their hearts in the process. As I only knew a few cases, these are not exactly a fair projection about all cases but in these cases it was simply because too often the OTD path is one of going after the unallowable and then just wallowing in it. The greatest joy to a parent of an OTD kid is simply to see that child successful because all too often they see them simply self destructing.
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