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Unbearable: Life in a religious straitjacket
on 29 March 2012
I bought this book and managed to read it over two days (gone are the days when I was young, free and childless enough to complete it in a single day). I have given it 4 stars, because I think 3 were not enough but I think 3 1/2 would be closer to the mark - call me a pedant if you like! I am very well versed in reading books written by young women (usually, but not exclusively, Muslim) who escape from unsatisfactory lives due to abuse or overly strict familial interpretation of religion or a combination of both, so for me the genre was more of the same but the ethnic background (in this case Hasidic Jewish) was a refreshing change from that which I am used to.
Deborah describes her Satmar Hasidic Jewish upbringing in Williamsburg, New York City. Her mother had left her in circumstances which are not completely made clear to her until later life, and her father wafts in and out of her life owing to him being unable to care for Deborah as he suffers from enduring mental health problems. She is brought up by her unemotional grandparents who are survivors of the holocaust, and her upbringing is strict - no TV, radio, no books other than those she studies at school, and little interaction with others outside of her family and certainly not with the wider community outside the Satmar neighbourhood where she lives.
However Deborah has a mind that cannot be constrained by the limitations of her faith and from an early age she finds herself mentally questioning some of the tenets of Judaism. This sometimes manifests itself in acts of rebellion such as borrowing books from the library or buying them whenever possible - both acts would be considered morally reprehensible by her community; first books on Judaism in English which help her make sense of what she only learns in Yiddish or (to her) incomprehensible Hebrew, and later novels by Jane Austen and Roald Dahl amongst others, which she must read in secrecy. These works open up a whole world of ideas and possibilities to a very cloistered teenager, and she sees herself reflected in the protagonists of these books.
She details how she is introduced to her husband by family members and her subsequent marriage to a man she only gets to meet twice before their wedding. Her reading has led her to have high hopes for at least some romance with the man with whom she would spend the rest of her life, but his lack of backbone in the face of interfering, gossip-mongering family quickly dashes these hopes. Her description of the mikvah or ritual bathing undertaken by brides and married women is harrowing in how demeaning and and domineering other older women can be and how they can try to assert their power over still-adolescent girls.
What shocked me the most was Deborah's friend Golda's description of her wedding night;
"There was blood everywhere-on the bed, on the walls. I had to go to the hospital." Her face creases suddenly and I think she is going to cry, but she takes a deep breath and smiles bravely. "He went into the wrong place. It ruptured my colon. Oh, Devoireh, you can't imagine the pain. It was so bad!"
To imagine any young person going into marriage totally ignorant of their own anatomy or the act of sex in the 21st century is beyond belief and to keep anyone this innocent does not strike me as sensible or endeavouring to keep children and youths 'pure' but almost barbarically cruel. I would like to read more about the Hasidim generally to get a balanced view, but I'll never forget Golda's experience.
I would have liked to have seen a glossary of Yiddish and Hebrew terms used in the book as very few of the phrases are translated and thus many concepts can be lost as a result. The book is not very fast-paced and the early-life chapters do plod along rather, but in a sense this adds to the sense of a lonely, rather boring childhood and of course I never bought Unorthodox expecting action packed memoirs, but just to warn you really of the slow pace. Again, if anyone reads this expecting a positive review of the Hasidic community or even a unbiased opinion, you're not going to get this from someone who spent the first 2 1/2 decades of her life trying to leave!
Deborah was very obviously born a 'thinker' and I think it shows that no matter how people may argue that religious indoctrination is wrong, the human spirit will always rebel against what it considers to be instinctively incorrect. I found that some of Deborah's conclusions regarding God according to the confines of a particular faith tallied with conclusions that I myself have drawn. She is clearly a very intellectual lady, and the book encapsulated her spiritual growth (or decline, whichever way you choose to see it) perfectly and concisely.
I wish Ms Feldman the best of luck in life for both her and her son, and I just hope that she does not suffer at the hands of those she has left as a result.