“Unorthodox”: A book and Netflix series review

By Roni Roseberg

Deborah Feldman’s autobiographical account, “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots”, is a chronicle of her major life transformation from very religious to secular life.

It was written in 2012, but I only became aware of it when I heard her recent interview on National Public Radio.

Her calm voice revealed the depth of her insights as she talked about her story and its fictionalised remake into a four-episode Netflix series.

I immediately obtained the book and enjoyed it. I am now eager to read her other books.

Author Deborah Feldman (Image credit: Alexa Vachon)

Feldman grew up in the Satmar ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclave in Williamsburg, New York.

Members of this group—the original founders are from Hungary—are extremely strict, reclusive and exclusive.

Every move a member makes must align with the group’s very traditional values.

As a Jewish woman, I did not grow up this way, but I can relate somewhat.

Feldman’s marriage was arranged, as was my grandmother’s. My father and four grandparents came from Eastern Europe.

Their parents were Orthodox, but their adherence to the strictures loosened as they assimilated into North American life.

My family of origin is Reform Jewish, now with a multicultural assortment of members. However, due to an experience I had some twenty-five years ago, I know something about the Orthodox culture.

By coincidence, I was kind of adopted as an adult by a family of Lubavitcher Hasidim (Chabad), an Orthodox offshoot somewhat more flexible than the Satmar group, although I did not live with them.

And currently, while I was reading and enjoying Feldman’s book, I was also in middle of a Yiddish course — heavily seasoned with religious teachings — given by my Lubavitcher friends on Zoom.

So, I confess to having some mixed feelings.

However, I have complete choice in taking the Yiddish class and I have never once felt pressured by these friends to become more religious.

Either they have mastered the art of not alienating Reform, Liberal, Masorti or non-practicing Jews they minister to, or have sized me up really well.

I am by nature, rebellious. Any pressure, and I’d likely turned my back on the relationship long ago.

Feldman, on the other hand, lived from childhood to early adulthood without many choices.

She finally exercised her choice to leave when she could stand it no more.

And she did so at great cost.

Her book documents the evolution of her choice to separate from the enclave and her marriage, enduring severe ostracism, and taking on the fight of her life to become an independent woman and mother.

I identified with this phase as well, since I left a defective marriage and raised two sons.

I literally felt my muscles straining as I read of Feldman’s frustrations, escape, and hiding in order to be herself. My situation was not so different.

I wondered if it would be strange to read Feldman’s factual account and then see a fictionalised movie version.

Much, but not all, of the Netflix version is based on the book.

I was able to reconcile the disparity between the two.

This is because the award-winning Netflix series is so good, primarily because of the fine acting and the sensitive way problems of navigation between two worlds was handled.

I also wanted to see a series in Yiddish – my father’s native language.

Actress Shira Haas does a magnificent job as main character Esty Shapiro, finally singing in an act of open rebellion at a musical audition (since Orthodox women must not sing in public) a song to celebrate herself.

This is the wedding song that welcomes a bride at her wedding which is normally sung by men.

Another point I wondered about is, though much in the autobiography and series is familiar to me, how non-Jews will handle this intimate look at the inner life of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Etsy’s previous life is quite different from mainstream American life and even other Jewish lives.

Through the sensitive handling of both, however, the themes of the women’s struggles for freedom everywhere are relatable.

Today, Feldman lives as she wishes, with her son, and is a fine writer as well.

I know some of what she had to go through to get where she is.

I’m glad she did that younger than I did, but what counts is doing it, and what you learn along the way.

I am also glad she so masterfully shared her journey. The only way to live is in a way that is authentic to you.

Feldman is truly a woman of valour; she is true to her principles and she is wise with hard-earned wisdom.

A definite recommended book and series!

Find out more

Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots is available for purchase online at Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

The four-part series Unorthodox is available to watch on Netflix.

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