(Un)orthodox and Hasidic Judaism

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Raised by her grandparents, aunts and uncles in the Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, even as a child Deborah Feldman felt oppressed and out of place. In her controversial memoir, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012), she casts light upon the secretive and mystical world of Orthodox Judaism. Hasidic Jews live in the midst of our contemporary world in a way that strictly observes the religious rituals of their eighteenth-century Polish orthodox roots. Hasidic Judaism, which in the Hebrew language means “piety” or “loving-kindness”, originated in the Pale of Settlement region of eighteenth-century Poland, part of a large area in Eastern Europe set up by Catherine the Great of Russia in 1791 for Jewish habitation. The Pale of Settlement included a large part of the Polish Commonwealth as well as regions in modern Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova, the Ukraine and Russia.

Setting itself apart from the then prevalent Rabbinism, which had become a kind of religious formalism, Hasidic teachings emphasized Jewish mysticism and the strength of the religious community. It embraced the medieval tradition of Kabbalah and encouraged the religious study of the Torah by every Jewish male, an education that begins at the age of three and continues throughout their lives. Today there are approximately 30 large Hasidic groups, which rarely intermarry, and hundreds of smaller groups. Although similar in religious outlook, these groups tend to stick together to their own ethnic communities.

In the Hasidic religion, women are prohibited from religious study and even discouraged from reading lay books, which may corrupt their modesty. They are prescribed traditional roles as wives and mothers. Strict religious rituals govern the interaction between men and women. In the documentary entitled A Life Apart, PBS.org depicts the patriarchal microcosm of Hasidic Judaism:

 

“Orthodox women in particular are charged with a religious obligation to raise children and are “exempt” from all commandments that are considered “time-bound,” i.e., those that must be performed at a certain time. These include the obligation to study Torah, and to attend daily prayer services. Men and women thus have considerably different experiences of spirituality and daily tasks. Most observers would not dispute that the Hasidim live in a traditionally patriarchal system. (http://www.pbs.org/alifeapart/intro_2.html)

Most members of Hasidic communities value deeply their traditional way of life and feel it is their duty to preserve it even in the midst of an increasingly egalitarian contemporary society. But what happens to those—particularly to women–who feel oppressed by the rules and patriarchal underpinnings of this atavistic way of life?

This is the predicament that Deborah Feldman, a young woman who feels trapped by the practices of her Hasidic community, finds herself in. Ignorant of sexuality and having had little contact with men outside her family, Deborah’s world dramatically changes for the worse when, according to the practices of the Satmar Sect of Hasidic Judaism to which her extended family belongs, she’s forced into an arranged marriage at the age of seventeen. Her husband, Eli, who although only 24 years old, is considered a late bloomer, is not a horrible man. But Deborah’s awakening feminist consciousness and her growing reluctance to embrace the world of Hasidic Judaism, combined with her husband’s strict observance of the traditional ways of his family, makes for a very unhappy marriage. Had Eli been paired up with a woman who was equally observant of the Hasidic religion, he might have made an excellent match. But his marriage to Deborah is, from the start, doomed to failure.

Their sexual inexperience–and Deborah’s ever-growing anxiety in living in a devoutly religious world she rejects—leads to sexual dysfunction for the couple. When, after several years of religious counseling and conventional therapy, Deborah and Eli have a baby (Yitzhak, whom they call Yitzy), the young mother finds herself as detached from their son as she is from her religiously observant husband. She’s alarmed by her own lack of maternal feeling, wondering, “Could I be so damaged by my childhood experiences that I was drained of the ability to love anything? It was one thing if I couldn’t manage to love a man I was arbitrarily arranged to marry. It was a whole other thing to feel detached from my own child” (217).

She looks within and considers exploring other paths in life, which could make her feel more fulfilled. Perhaps her lack of emotion is tied to her sense of dissatisfaction. Once she takes a poetry course at Sarah Lawrence College, she discovers her talent for writing and starts flourishing in a modern environment so different from the traditional society she was raised in. Deborah then realizes that a large part of her emotional unavailability is caused by the strain of living in a traditional culture to which she feels she doesn’t belong. Yet she feels torn, since the traditional way of life that she was brought up in is all she knows. For awhile, she leads a double life, struggling to change personas, from Hasidic to modern, as often as she changes her clothes: from the traditional long skirts prescribed by her religion to the jeans she changes into when she takes classes at Sarah Lawrence College. But only one persona reflects her true identity. Just as she feels more herself in jeans, she feels more at home in mainstream American society. Eventually, after much hesitation, Deborah takes a leap of faith, leaving the Hasidic way of life to begin a new, modern life with her son. The more at ease she feels with herself, the more bonded she feels to her baby. Deborah associates contemporary society with freedom: not the freedom to engage in excess, as it is for some youths who leave the Hasidic community, but the freedom to discover her talents and identity without shame and without having to hide.

When first published, Unorthodox was highly controversial, particularly for members of the Hasidic community, many of whom felt offended. This memoir offers a very critical and intimate perspective on a fundamentalist religion that many embrace wholeheartedly and willingly. For me, the most important aspect of this book was not so much its critique of orthodoxy as its emphasis upon individual choice: the freedom to choose one’s religion and way of life as an adult and, along with that, the freedom to choose one’s identity.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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