When I moved to New York this winter, I was surprised by the constant presence of “Amish-looking” people, who I came to know as members of a Hasidic Jewish sect. Judaism is obviously more popular here than in outport Newfoundland, so there was a cultural education to be had. I don’t know if reading Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots was the way to learn about the religious faction from an unbiased perspective (as other book bloggers have also acknowledged) but it certainly packed a punch.
It wasn’t something I would have thought to read but a friend recommended it to me on a crisp April night at Bistro Citron on the Upper West Side. I never knew then that just across the Brooklyn Bridge people were living under these extreme regimented religious rules. As a feminist, a passionate learner, and an avid reader, I found some bits of Deborah Feldman’s story heart-wrenching and mind-blowing. It was a crash course in cultural sensitivity. I understand why these Hasidic Jews don’t smile at me (they are taught to believe all gentiles hate them) and why they sometimes avert their eyes to avoid looking at me (well, my exposed knees might do it according to their modesty laws, you know, since I’m causing them to sin and all that).
I would love to delve into everything that I’ve been lamenting to my husband about for the past week and a half as I read it, but I will restrain myself. I’ll just say that I never thought I would question the importance of religious freedom, but I can’t find a way to support a religious culture that considers education a step on the path to promiscuity, that denies girls the human right to gain a Government approved minimum education (graduating “high school” with a grade four education), that forces them to act like criminals to get the opportunity to read, and that made them feel that their bodies are inherently shameful. It feels like the Hasidic women are having basic human rights violated by their religious rule.
It hit close to home to consider her sitting outside the Starbucks in Airmont avoiding the ritual purifying baths and to read of other reference points that are part of my own geography. This type of lifestyle seems faraway and something for another country, not Brooklyn or Rockland County. It is surreal to understand a little more about the way of life within the Satmar sect because it is much more extreme than I ever could have imagined.