While most females in their late teens today are preparing for college, entering the workforce or otherwise exploring a multitude of options, Deborah Feldman's memoir, "Unorthodox" (Simon & Schuster, 272 pages, $23), reminds us that there are religious communities in the United States that restrict young women to marriage and motherhood. These women are expected to be obedient to their community and religion, without question or complaint, no matter the price.
Feldman grew up in the Satmar sect of an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, and although she was only 23 when she started writing her memoir, she has the eloquence and composure of a more experienced writer. She patiently leads the reader through her experience growing up within the strict confines of her extended family's expectations, while she has the added challenge of having been abandoned by her parents as a child.
She knew she was ideologically different from her family at an early age, and she risks punishment in order to read forbidden books. She finds solace in novels, from Roald Dahl's "Matilda" to Betty Smith's "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," and as she gets closer to her "marriageable" age, an age she associates with great freedom, she reads and rereads "Pride and Prejudice" for a glimpse of how she can maintain a modicum of independence while fulfilling her role as a wife.
When Feldman turns 17, she is married to a member of the community and her most challenging journey begins. Neither spouse was ever taught about basic anatomy, let alone how a marriage is physically consummated, so for a lengthy period Feldman is blamed for her husband's inability to perform sexually. As Feldman soon discovers, their plight is not unusual in the community but is considered too shameful to discuss. In "Unorthodox" she boldly addresses the subject in a way that elicits both shock and sympathy.
Eventually, Feldman becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son, which impels her to take risks she never had the courage to take before, including applying to college, shunning select traditions and, in a triumphant moment, wearing jeans in public instead of the required skirt. She also reaches out to her estranged mother and ultimately decides to leave the Hasidic community and her husband.
"Unorthodox" is heavily influenced by Feldman's early reading choices, and while we know how the story ends, we still root for her as if she were Francie Nolan or Elizabeth Bennet. Feldman writes, "It takes a long time for shame to fade away, but underneath it there is pride."
Meganne Fabrega is a freelance writer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.