Friday, March 23, 2012


Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, by Deborah Feldman

Little did I know that I was about to dive into a scandalous book! Feldman must have predicted the type of reaction she would receive when she published her memoir. The Hasidic community has mounted a campaign to discredit her.

Feldman was born into an extremely strict sect of Hasidic Judaism, the Satmar sect, founded on the belief that the Holocaust was God's punishment for the Jews because they had forsaken their strict religious laws. Her father was mentally disabled or retarded (hard to say, because he was never diagnosed for fear of affecting his marriageability), and her mother, who had traveled from England to marry her father sight unseen, escaped the sect when Feldman was a girl. Consequently, Feldman was sent to live with her grandparents, who she is fond of, but she never really felt truly loved and accepted. She constantly chafed against the extremely rigid rules, unfair treatment of women, and rejection of secularism.

Strongly discouraged from reading or speaking English, she delighted in discovering Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, and JK Rowling. Hasidic schools for girls emphasize religious instruction over academics, so she felt grossly inadequately educated. When she finally met a teacher who will challenge her (even though she also sounds bordering on verbally abusive!), she was thrilled.

When she was married off at 18 to a man chosen for her by her grandparents, her body completely shut down. After receiving messages all her life that her body was a den of iniquity and temptation to men, she could not have a healthy sexual relationship with her husband. After much therapy (and the entire community knowing intimate details of their sex life), they finally consummated their marriage. When her son Yitzak was born, she knew that she had to get out. She enrolled in a course for adult learners at Sarah Lawrence and her world cracked open.

I really enjoyed this book, and Feldman is an inspiration. I cannot imagine what it would feel like to be trapped in a religion that believes that you are dirty for half of the month...and that you cannot partake in the same religious studies and community as men. (I loved the movie "Yentl" for similar reasons.) Or one in which your worth is determined by the age at which you get married, who you marry, if you secretly attend the mikvah (women do not discuss the mikvah with their husbands), and whether you wear a wig instead of your natural hair.

As I mentioned, the Satmar and other ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects are waging war on this book and Feldman herself (this pro-Orthodox Facebook group has been urging people to write one-star reviews). Just look it up on amazon and you'll see what I mean. What is most fascinating about this campaign are the petty accusations they are leveling at her:
  • They claim she didn't accurately describe her mother's life and when she got divorced.
  • They point out the existence of Feldman's younger sister and claim the whole book is a lie because she left her out. (Feldman says she chose to leave her out because she is a minor.)
  • Clearly without reading the book, they say that she fabricated a story about a woman's murder (??) and that she said her mother abused her. There's nothing like this in the book.
  • Feldman attended a strict Satmar school, but they say that she didn't admit it was not her first school. This is not true. She did say that she moved to a new school, but she doesn't say a lot about her former school. How is this important??
  • Feldman tells a story about a Hasidic man who cuts off his son's penis after he saw him masturbating. She acknowledges that she doesn't know this for a fact, but it is what she hears (through her husband and his brother). The crime is not reported. This enrages the haters, because they say it's blood libel. Feldman admits that she was reporting the facts third hand. Still, it's concerning...that as well as another rumor she heard about a man who sexually abused minors, and the crime was covered up and not reported to the authorities!
  • Some Hasidic women say she doesn't portray the life of Hasids accurately...and "I'm a Chassidic woman who runs her business and employs 30 people" or they say that she is attacking a religion that treats women with respect. Hmm...
  • They claim that she has attacked her grandparents and has been ungrateful. (I did not see any of this. She writes fondly of her grandparents.)
  • They say that all of her problems were due to growing up in a dysfunctional family.
These are just a few of the examples I've seen as "evidence" that Feldman fabricated the whole book. As Jesse Kornbluth writes in The Huffington Post, the haters are completely missing the point of the book.
What's fascinating to me in all this is that the Satmars only want to engage on the smallest points:, like where Feldman went to school and the technicalities of her mother's divorce, I've received not a word of protest about the conclusion of my review, which was, I thought, the most damning:
The real issue is sex. Not the act, but what it signifies --- male control of women. That old story. We see it in far too many places; dehumanizing women is a key component of fundamentalist cults, from hardcore Muslims to certain Republicans.

Men who oppress women --- they say they love them, but it seems more like they fear and hate them --- haven't been taught that sex is our reward for making it through the day. Like their women, these men have been sold the idea that sex is just for procreation. No wonder they feel like they're the ones who are oppressed.

There are claims in this book that Hasids have disputed. I can't tell what's true. But I'm sure of one thing: Men who can't live equally with women aren't worth living with.

Why didn't the Satmars take me on about the blatant sexism that oppresses both women and men in their community? I can only conclude this: It's a problem for Deborah Feldman --- not for them.
Feldman also spoke of her disenchantment with the Satmars, not just for the way they treat women, but also the way they fight for power. Her grandfather told her that in Europe, no one would have dreamed of fighting to be called a rabbi. (They actually turned down the position because of their humility.) But Feldman's Satmar community was divided in half--each half supported one of the Satmar rebbe's sons for succession. And it was a bitter battle. When she first met her prospective husband, she's unsure of whether she can even consider the match because she's concerned his family supports the other son.

When it's discovered that the wigs worn by the Hasidic women have actually been made with human hair from India (from women who worship other gods), the rabbis claimed that it's the work of the devil, a punishment for the "promiscuity of their women." (Yes, it's all the women's fault. Always. See above...a religion that treats women with respect?)

 Feldman wrote of her harrowing and humiliating first exposure to the Mikvah, the ritual bath house every woman must visit (and be inspected) before her husband can touch her. For 14 days after her period, she had to touch herself with white cloths twice a day to make sure she was not bleeding, for fear of "contaminating" her holy husband. That's right, women are filthy dirty. She also had a very difficult time bonding with her family members and her son because of the rigid rules and her anxiety about breaking them. It was only when she finally left with her son that she was able to develop a close relationship with him.

I remember learning about the ultra-Orthodox morning prayer men say, "Thank God I was not born a woman." Well, it's easy to understand why Feldman left such a stifling, misogynistic community.

Although Feldman's memoir is not perfect (many characters and events seem to be given short shrift), it's her story...and it's told from her perspective. She writes about the things that mattered most to her. Her mother and father were not significant influences in her life, so they are largely absent. Now that she's left, she has a relationship with her mother. I found this book to be very inspirational, and one that I will hold in my heart for a long time.

Judaism, as with many religions, can be beautiful. But when religion is taken to its extreme (in Christianity, Islam, or Judaism), it perverts it to a love of the law over a love and compassion for others and for God.

Friday, March 16, 2012

You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up

You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up,
by Annabelle Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn

I checked this book out of the library not so much for the great title (which my eight-year-old found hilarious) or the main story (about two comedic writers/actors who are married to each other and fight about nearly everything) but primarily because Gurwitch and Kahn have a child with VACTERLS Syndrome, like our little friend Zacary. Their son Ezra was born without an anus, in addition to several other birth defects (he has only one kidney, which is undersized). The first year of Ezra's life, this couple argued constantly in the midst of all their stress and seemed to blame each other for what was going on.

The basis for a lot of humor is complaining, really, so it's ironic that I chose to read a book full of complaining during my own "complaint-free Lent." The book is written alternately in Gurwitch's and Kahn's point of view (He says/She Says), and it is amusing at times to see how differently they remember certain situations. That happens to us sometimes too. But that's where the comparisons stop. We are not bickerers or nitpickers. I think we've found a way to ignore the little things and focus on the best in each other, for the most part. (I do not mean to say we never argue or get annoyed by things the other person does, but we are veritable saints compared to these two.)

Maybe it's being Jewish, or being comedians, or living in southern California. These people complain about everything. Now granted they also wouldn't be that easy to live with either! Kahn comes across as a sex-crazed frat boy at times, whereas Gurwitch appears to be uptight and overly opinionated. I'm sure that much of what they write about is completely over the top, because it's more funny that way.

In the end of the book, they admit that in spite of it all, they really love each other flaws and all. As they quote, some studies have found that as many as 70 percent of marriages dissolve when they have a medically fragile child. I've found that to be true in our personal circle of acquaintances from our NICU family support group. It tests a relationship like nothing else can. These two have survived that (their son is now 11 and doing well), so I think they'll be fine...even though they're not always very nice to each other. We know other couples like that, long as each person gives as good as he or she gets, they seem to thrive on that banter.

I'll stick with my calmer, more respectful marriage though, thank you very much!

Monday, March 12, 2012

In the World of Downton Abbey

The World of Downton Abbey, by Jessica Fellowes

Mike picked this up at the library, as we are both Downton Abbey fans. Jessica Fellowes is the niece of the series' creator, Julian Fellowes.

Although this book is ripe with rich photos of the beautiful costumes and characters, what I valued most about it was reading the history behind the series. In particular, my favorite part was reading about American heiresses like Cora, or "Buccaneers," who saved many of the British aristocrats with their fortunes...while having to adjust to the uptight society and cultural mores of their new home. I'm always interested in the British-American matches, for obvious personal reasons!

It didn't take me long to get through this photo-rich book, but I greatly enjoyed it!

Moonwalking with Einstein

Moonwalking with Einstein,
by Joshua Foer

My friend Catherine lent this book to me after I attended a memory enhancement workshop through my professional society, IABC. I had read one of Foer's brother's books, Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer.

In Moonwalking with Einstein, Foer sets out to study the quirky world of professional memory athletes. Within one year of his mental training with the experts (including his British coach), he actually competes in the USA Memory Championships, and even makes a world record in playing card memorization (although his record was broken in 2011).

Interweaving facts and history about memory (including research about amnesia, the history of memorization, and memory savants) with his own story of how he became a memory athlete, the book is interesting and memorable.

At the beginning of the book, Foer suggests that readers create a "memory palace" along with him to remember a random to-do list. I did the exercise and then recited the list to Mike. It was fun to learn a new trick like that...but at times Foer's adventures exhausted me (just reading about them!). Apparently, Americans are babies in the memorization world--akin to the Jamaican bobsledders at the Olympics. The real champs are the Brits and Germans, perhaps because they back into the past more than we Americans, who are obsessed with the future.

In the end, he concludes that it's really not worth all the effort. He forgets his car soon after the memory championships, proving that even though memory tricks can help you memorize facts and figures, they don't necessarily help you with the things that really matter.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, by Beth Hoffman

CeeCee Honeycutt's mentally ill mom still lives in her memories of being the 1951 Vidalia Onion Queen. She loves to collect prom dresses and wear them around town, embarassing her 12-year-old daughter. CeeCee's father is absent and detached. When tragedy strikes, she goes to live with her Great-Aunt Tootie in Savannah, Georgia.

CeeCee is embraced by Tootie and all of her friends--her cook Oletta, neighbor Thelma Rae Goodpepper, and the ladies of the Savannah Garden Club. She discovers the meaning of southern hospitality and finds the family and nurturing she never had.

I enjoyed this light, heartwarming novel, although in some cases the plot lacked follow-through, and in others, the conflict resolved all too easily. For those reasons, it definitely seemed like a first novel. I thoroughly enjoyed the friendship between CeeCee and Oletta and the color-blind relationships among all of the women, but I couldn't help but wonder how realistic it was at the time (1960s in the south). In particular, I found it strange to imagine the final garden party, where Oletta and her friends were part of the party with all the other women...and only one of them (the obnoxious neighbor) made a scene about it. So the book seemed a bit idealistic in some ways. However, it was a nice, light read with a compelling story.