When I first picked up “Unorthodox,” I’ll admit I was primed for a scandal. Instead, Feldman’s memoir provides a glimpse inside a religious community (the Satmar sect of Brooklyn) so severely confining, so prohibitive of self-expression and dismissive of women, that it threatens to destroy Feldman’s spirit. Feldman’s mother abandoned her in early childhood, when she, too, rejected the community. Feldman’s father, mentally ill and developmentally disabled, is unable to care for his daughter, and she is raised by her grandparents in a strictly religious household. Although Feldman holds affection for her caregivers, she also lives in fear of their disapproval. Even activities like going to the library, where she covertly withdraws books like “Little Women” and “Pride and Prejudice,” make Feldman feel guilty. Feldman and the other girls in the community receive a substandard education, and they are not permitted to pursue higher education. Perhaps most disturbing is the way the Satmars safeguard themselves from the outside world by keeping secrets about child abuse and other violent crimes. Gradually, Feldman begins to explore the world outside the Satmar community and comes to understand she must leave, to save herself from a life of deep dissatisfaction and despair.
As I read “Unorthodox,” I was aware of my own impatience for Feldman to leave the community. I grew frustrated with the sordid details of life within the community. Yet I think my frustration was less about the memoir, and more about my desire to run away from the painful facts of Feldman’s life.