Monday, March 5, 2012

"Unorthodox," a memoir by Deborah Feldman

An examination of an insular world is best described by an insider--especially one who's never felt she belonged in this world, yet was pinned to its dogmas and unbending religious fanaticism.

Deborah Feldman's difficult upbringing was clouded and severely compromised by the absence of her parents: Her borderline mentally disabled father had been matched to marry an impoverished yet intelligent teenager from a distant community, who took off shortly after Deborah was born to fend for herself and to get education and a life. As a result, the young Deborah was abandoned into the care of her grandparents, loving but bound to austerity both by religious norms and personal histories as Holocaust survivors.

What should have amazed me (but didn't) when reading Deborah Feldman's "Unorthodox," was how little had changed in that world set in Brooklyn, NY, from 100 years ago in a similar ultra-Orthodox society in Jerusalem, yet how much had.... In my research into the lives of women in Jerusalem at the end of the Ottoman Empire rule of the Holy Land, I found women living in a highly restrictive Jewish religious society marked on the outside by its adherence to exaggerately modest clothing (and head-shaving for married women,) and subject to decrees, rules, male-dominant religious hierarchy and strict social expectations that forced the public into every private domain. Then and now, every transgression was watched closely by others, and manifestations of individuality cut at the bud. The difference was that in Jerusalem of the time, women suffered the lack of personal freedoms underpinned by shortages, plagues and pestilence with more stoic acceptance--even spiritual exuberance--because they had a mission: suffering and "building a home" in the holy city helped hasten the messiah's arrival and thus bring salvation to world Jewry. Not so in Feldman's milieu in the Satmar community in Brooklyn, just within sight of the Manhattan skyline. There was no apparent spiritual foundation to justify the imposition of extreme strict norms of conduct and of education that was no more than indoctrination to further stave off outside influences. At least it was not apparent to Feldman, nor instilled in girls and women relegated to the back of the synagogue and (then and now) excluded from active participation in religious services.

A free spirit, open-minded, intelligent Deborah suffered both from low social standing as a result of her dubious parentage and from emotional detachment that often accompanies parentless children. In the close-knit society of a few city blocks, she forever felt as an outcast. Her grandparents fed her well and clothed her in hand-me downs from her cousins, and loved her in their own distracted ways. And unlike the ceaseless labor often imposed on girls in large Satmar families, the grandparents made little physical demands of Deborah: her help in her grandmother's housecleaning and long days in the kitchen seemed more voluntary rather than forced. Society's total control came into young Deborah's life in the form of an aunt who made all important life decisions for her, control that baffled the young Deborah, yet was understandable in the absence of parents, the aunt's qualifications as the principal of the local girls' school, and the need to help the grandparents handle the unexpected gift of raising a grandchild long after their own children had left home. The glaring problem in this aunt-niece relationship was the fact that the aunt never became a parent figure, and the short time little Deborah had lived in her home among her cousins was a miserable experience for the girl. While the aunt didn't seem resentful of the added responsibility, the young Deborah hated the woman's ever-present authority that made no allowance for the girl's wants and individuality.

I had learned in my research that in old Jerusalem, where there was no running water, sanitation or electricity, girls were kept illiterate, which further isolated the already insular Jewish females so they could be married off soon after puberty. In the Satmar community one-hundred years later, though, all girls were educated--albeit in truncated programs that shunned English and offered a stilted religious world view via distorted facts (e.g., the Satmar believe that Jews should not create their own state until the messiah's arrival, and therefore object to Israel's existence.) Luckily for Deborah, there were public libraries available, and when she dared explore the world beyond her street, it was only a few subway stops from Manhattan.

Those freedoms took enormous courage, yet were available within a stone-throw away. If we stop to consider hundreds of million of women living today in Muslim societies that oppress and subjugate them in the name of religion, the hopelessness of their situations is evident as schools, accessible public libraries, piped music at discount clothing stores, subways where women need not be chaperoned by men, and colleges that offer scholarships are simply not available.

Once married at seventeen, Ms. Feldman learned to drive, owned a car, and in time, was able to enroll in college. As horrifically we view the notion of being married off as a teenager to a man she had met only once pre-engagement, and stepping into a marriage that turned out to be doomed by incompatibility, at the beginning the new bride embraced it all. She loved her new status, the adulation she was receiving during the engagement period, and the shower of new clothes, household gifts and furniture when her parsimonious grandfather's purse suddenly opened. Most importantly, marriage offered Deborah the chance to move away with her husband to a suburb where other young Orthodox families breathed a more relaxed atmosphere and Deborah enjoyed the loosening of the community's tight hold on her soul. When she decided to enroll in college, the question of child care of her baby never seems to come up as a problem.

At the end, it seemed that Deborah was never truly religious. She never fully bought into the doctrine and practices embraced by many other Satmars. Eventually, she found her comfort zone in secular Jewish living. This is not a fact her former community seems willing to accept as glimpsed by the vicious attacks on her. It is sad--and expected--that the one who self-expelled from the bonds of fanaticism would be considered a traitor by those who had shown her little compassion when she was living in their midst. There is never room for individual wants or personal freedoms within a fundamentalist religious society that reveres itself exactly for being what it is.

Author Talia Carner's latest novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN, is set in the ultra-Orthodox community of Jerusalem at the end of the Ottoman Empire rule of the Holy Land.

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