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This reading group guide forUnorthodox includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Deborah Feldman. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Raised in the cloistered world of Brooklyn’s Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism, Deborah Feldman struggled as a naturally curious child to make sense of and obey the rigid strictures that governed her daily life. From what she could read to whom she could speak with, virtually every aspect of her identity was tightly controlled. Married at age seventeen to a man she had only met for thirty minutes and denied a traditional education—sexual or otherwise—she was unable to consummate the relationship for an entire year. Her resultant debilitating anxiety went undiagnosed and was exacerbated by the public shame of having failed to serve her husband. In exceptional prose, Feldman recalls how stolen moments reading about the empowered literary characters of Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott helped her to see an alternative way of life—one she knew she had to seize when, at the age of nineteen, she gave birth to a son and realized that more than just her own future was at stake.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The heroines in the books Deborah read as a girl were her first inspirations, the first to make her consider her own potential outside of her community. Which literary characters have inspired you?
2. As a girl, with two absentee parents and an outspoken nature, Deborah was systematically made to feel different or “bad.” How did the structure of Satmar Hasidic culture make her feel such shame, and how did this shame serve to subjugate her?
3. When Deobrah learns that King David—a sainted historical figure who supposedly did no wrong—is a murderer and a hypocrite, she writes, “I am not aware at this moment that I have lost my innocence. I will realize it many years later.” What is the line between innocence and willful ignorance? How did Deborah’s ability and willingness to question authority and think for herself change the course of her life?
4. The cloistered Satmar community is located on the outskirts of New York City, one of the most racially, spiritually and culturally diverse places in America. How do aspects of the outside world enter Deborah’s consciousness, and how do you think these glimpses of life outside her insular community impacted her development?
5. Deborah writes of the various ways she was restricted and constrained by her religion, but her grandparents found solace in the strict Hasidic community after the Holocaust. Were there any positive aspects of her tightly knit sect?
6. How was Deborah’s life affected by gossip and the fear of scrutiny from her friends and neighbors? How have other people’s judgments and criticisms affected your own life?
7. How much were Deborah’s Bubby and her aunts responsible for the unhappiness in her life? How much free will did they have, given their cultural restrictions?
8. When it is time for Deborah to find a husband, her ordinarily stingy Zeidy starts spending money. How does this rampant materialism conflict with the community’s values of modesty and simplicity? How does this kind of materialism differ from and how is it similar to materialism in secular life?
9. Discuss your reaction to the fact that Deborah’s mother fled the community. How different do you think Deborah’s life would have been if her mother had not left?
10. Even though her marriage is arranged and she has very little say in the matter, Deborah originally views her impending nuptials as an opportunity for freedom. Was she naïve? Did her marriage with Eli constrain her even more than she already was?
11. Deborah’s description of going to the mikvah is one of the most harrowing of the book. How did her experience at the ritual baths expose the most glaring hypocrisies of her religion?
12. How did Deborah’s responsibilities shift when her son was born? What do you think ultimately led her to summon the courage to leave her community?
13. Deborah writes about the abuses that are allowed to run rampant in the Satmar community—from her own father’s untreated mental illness to pedophilia. From Deborah’s account of life in the Satmar Hasidic religion, do you think the community will ever be able to change or be reformed?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Food was a major aspect of Deborah’s family and religious life. Try out some recipes for Yiddish delicacies, like egg kichel or babka, and share with your book club.
2. Deborah’s love of pop music was a shameful secret when she was growing up. Plan a group outing to a karaoke bar and belt out your favorite guilty pleasures.
3. James, Deborah’s professor at Sarah Lawrence, suggests that she read some Yiddish poetry that has been translated into English. Have each member of your book group find a poem that was originally written in Yiddish and recite it to the group. Is there anything about the poem that reflects a particular cultural point of view or gives a hint of the Yiddish temperament or sense of humor?
A Conversation with Deborah Feldman
You say this book is “your ticket out” of the Hasidic world. Did going back over the details of your life in the Satmar community bring about any new realizations? What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing Unorthodox?
While I was writing Unorthodox I was going through that delicate transition period that comes after leaving, where I was struggling to figure out what kind of person I was going to be, and what kind of life I was going to lead. Being forced to reflect on the past made me realize I was never going to be able to erase it, and that the past will always be a part of who I am. I eventually learned that this was not necessarily a bad thing, and I grew to accept it. Without the book to help me, it would have taken me much longer to achieve that realization.
From the time you were a little girl you loved reading. What are some of your favorite books and how have they influenced you?
I mention many of my favorites in the memoir, but I’ve also been a huge Charles Dickens fan for as long as I can remember. Being an anglophile, I quickly familiarized myself with all the renowned English writers, but his books stood out because they often concerned young children who found themselves suddenly disadvantaged in life, and his writing was steeped in a sort of romantic melancholy. I think books like that allowed me to make my own life seem like an adventure. Of course, I can’t forget about Harry Potter. I caught on to the series as a teenager and it was such an escape for me. To this day I credit J.K. Rowling for ever surviving my adolescence in the Satmar community. I remember a time when the next Harry Potter book was the only thing I had to look forward to. Recently I felt a similar excitement; I was reading a book by Lev Grossman that has been called the “grown-up Harry Potter,” titled The Magician King, and it made me remember how I felt as a kid all over again. It’s a great experience; to recapture that feeling. If an author can do that, then they have really achieved something.
In the book you mention that you kept a journal. When did you start writing? Do you keep a journal now? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
I started writing as soon as I started reading. There’s a reason writers write, and I think I understood that reason from a very young age. When I started writing, I felt like I had joined a club. I was engaged in an age-old process of reflection and creativity that tied me to the people I most admired; authors. In this way, writing made me feel less alone. It took me out of my small, limited world and made me feel part of the big picture. I still keep a journal; I think I always will. As I do this, I understand that it’s not so much about creating content, but about what writing can do for me as a person. It aids both my creative and personal development.
Do you think there is any chance that the Satmar community can be reformed? Is there any way for people outside of the community to help?
I definitely think there is a chance for positive change to occur in the Satmar community. As a realist, I understand that the extent of that change may be more limited than I would like, but that doesn’t negate its value. Change is created only when people demand it though, and I am just one person. Others will need to stand up for what they want as well. I believe that there are people in the community for whom the lifestyle fits more comfortably than it did in my case, but I also know that there are many trapped on the inside that wish to be emancipated but have no tools to achieve that. When I was inside, I was convinced there was no way out because I did not know anyone in the secular world, and my limited contact with it as a child had convinced me that no one would be receptive to my attempts at interaction. It would be nice if people could see past the costume to the person underneath it, and be more understanding as a result. If outsiders take notice, the Satmar community might be more inclined toward reform, as they are usually concerned with public image.
You write that you still consider yourself proud to be Jewish and that you still think it’s important to have faith. How has your religion manifested in your life outside the Satmar Hasidic community? Do you belong to a temple, or do you find other ways to express your beliefs?
I think my Jewishness has stayed with me largely because of my son, who identifies very positively with his ethnic and religious identity. Seeing him take pleasure in Jewish holidays and customs has taught me not to reject the beneficial aspects of a culture just because it has negative associations for me. While I am still uncomfortable with the idea of “belonging” to a temple or community, I don’t want to deprive my son of that choice, and so I try to stay as open and flexible as possible.
Now that you’re free to delve into secular culture, what particular activities do you most enjoy?
That’s easy. I love being part of a literary community. The fact that I don’t have to hide my books, or my love for them, is the best part about being free. I spend time in bookstores and attend readings, and it always feels like a celebration to me, because I know I would never have been able to take part in this were it not for my escape. I also love to travel, watch independent films, and visit art museums. The fact that I can expand my intellectual horizons when I want to is still thrilling and new to me.
Food has always played an important role in your life. How does it feel to not keep kosher? What are your favorite things to eat?
Interestingly, I still keep a kosher kitchen at home, because I am raising my son as Modern Orthodox, something I agreed to in order to keep the differences between his father’s lifestyle and mine as minimally confusing as possible. However, I consider myself a real foodie, and I love trying new dishes, especially when I’m traveling. I feel like the best way to get to know a new place is through the food it has to offer. Eating is such a sensual and indulgent activity and I think I have an emotional relationship to food that was instilled in me by my upbringing.
Have you had any further communication with your grandparents or the rest of your extended family? Do they know this book is being published? Has there been any fallout?
This is a sensitive issue for me. When I left I changed my contact information and hid for a while because I was scared that they would force me to return. Later, when news of the book surfaced, I received a lot of hate mail from members in my family, and that was very hurtful. However, reading the abusive messages reminded me how lucky I was to have escaped the community and made me more grateful than ever that I had made the decisions to leave it. I think my family and community will try to do whatever they can to hurt me, both to discount what I’m saying and to exact their revenge against me for betraying the code of silence. I am prepared for that eventuality, and I rely on the support of my close friends to get me through that.
Do you think anyone in the Satmar Hasidic community will read your book? Do you want them to?
I definitely think that members of the community will read the book, albeit in secret. There exists a certain curiosity about rebels; every time an article about one is published, it is discreetly circulated among a Hasidic audience. I certainly don’t mind if they do read it, I expect a certain amount of public outrage, but I’m also confident that many women, and men, may be inspired by it. I think it will make them think differently about the lives they lead.
Would you like your son to read this book one day? How will you explain his heritage to him?
It’s very difficult for me to imagine my son grown up and reading this book. I don’t think anyone would be very comfortable with the idea that the intimate details of their parents’ lives, and by extension—their life, is available to the public. I can only hope that he will accept me for who I am. Right now, we have a very close relationship and I answer all his questions honestly; I can only continue to try my best to do so as he grows older, and his questions become more complex.
What would you most like readers to take away from the experience of reading this book? What would you most like people to know about you, and about the Hasidic community in general?
I want people to think about how hard it can still be to grow up female in this day and age, because even though some of the experiences described in the book may strike you as extreme, I think all women can identify with the powerlessness I felt. A lot about how the Hasidic community conducts itself is a reflection on the greater society that allows it to do so, and I think attitudes towards multiculturalism need to change as a result. Justice for women needs to improve both in and outside of extreme religious cultures.
If you could talk to young girls from your old neighborhood who are struggling with their beliefs and feeling constrained by their community, what would you tell them?
I would tell them to reach out and ask for help. It’s scary to make that first contact, but more often than not it pays off. I’ve been helped by some amazing people, and I would love nothing more than to pay it forward. I know I can’t save the world, but I will certainly do everything I can to assist others like me.