Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots


I heard about Unorthodox on CBC one day and then I read a review of it The Globe and Mail and decided I needed to read it. I put a hold on it in the library and waited (I think I was number 100 and something on however many copies [I just checked - there are 23 now, but I think there were fewer back in April, but I could be wrong]) and promptly forgot about it until I got the email telling me to go get it or they'd charge me a dollar.

The book the following disclaimer right at the beginning:

The names and identifying characteristics of everyone in this book have been changed. While all the incidents described in this book are true, certain events have been compressed, consolidated, or reordered to protect the identities of the people involved and ensure continuity of the narrative. All dialogue is as close an approximation as possible to actual conversations that took place, to the best of my recollection.

I don't have a problem with the first statement about names and identifying characteristics: that often happens in memoirs, especially ones where the people are still alive and the story is scandalous or sensitive or could be hurtful. I don't have a problem with the statement about the dialogue either. It makes sense to me that the conversations would have to be reconstructed from memory since most people don't walk around recording all of their conversations.

The second part about changing the events made me raise my eyebrows. I thought it was a bit strange, but I started reading and thought little more of it.

But then at the beginning of July, I took a creative non-fiction course. We focused primarily on memoir, the personal essay, and literary journalism and spent some time talking about the characteristics of each and where the lines between them blurred. And during this discussion, I asked about the line between fiction and non-fiction. Our instructor told us that basically if it's true to the best of your ability, then it's non-fiction. She readily acknowledged that when you write memoir, you won't remember all the details or the exact words used in a conversation and that it's your memories that you're drawing on, so you might describe an event, situation, or conversation in a different way than someone else who was standing beside you, but she said she wasn't sure she'd ever seen a statement like that before.

We had a long discussion after that about James Frey and A Million Little Pieces and whether this book fell into that same category. We didn't come to a conclusion - maybe it did, maybe it didn't, it sort of depended. Our instructor did tell us about a book one of her instructors wrote that was essentially a memoir except that he changed two details: he only wrote about one brother when in reality he had two and he had an illness but for the purposes of the book he changed the illness. These two things prompted him to call his book a novel, even though the bulk of the book was the truth.

I pretty much forgot about the conversation and kept reading. I liked the voice, although sometimes I had trouble wrapping my brain around the present tense being used pretty much throughout. I have to admit I'm glad she changed the names and identifying details because I felt bad for some of the people she talked about having their lives splashed around the world for all to read. She talks more than once about how strongly reading in English was discouraged, so maybe few of her family and (former?) friends will actually read the book, although in the interview with the Current they discussed how the book is reportedly being read in secret and passed through the community, so maybe not.

I found the story gripping - of course I knew the ending, but I wasn't sure how we were going to get there. I didn't know much about Hasidic Jews at all before I read the book except that they seemed to dress modestly in dark clothing and the men wore curls over their ears. I have read a bunch about Hasidism in the last few days thought because I wanted to know more.

At the very end of the book, when Deborah is starting to extract herself from her family and religion, she mentions she had a blog called "Hasidic Feminist," which of course I had to Google. Remember that conversation I had with my class about memoir and James Frey? Well, the internets were comparing Deborah Feldman to James Frey (if you click on the link, you'll get to the Wikipedia page which describes the Frey controversy in detail). It turns out that she has a younger sister, but portrayed herself as an only child in the book. Her mother didn't just vanish when she was very young, her parents actually didn't divorce until she was a teenager. There's a number of other things that her detractors call attention to. Which raises the question: is this a work of fiction or of non-fiction. In The Globe and Mail article she openly states that she made some of the changes for the sake of the narrative - if you're going to mess with the timeline, then maybe you're better off to call it a novel, inspired by real events? A non-fiction novel? I'm curious to see where this goes.

I enjoyed the book - it gave me an interesting glimpse into a private culture's way of life. Of course it's only one person's perspective and with anything like this, that is worth taking into consideration. Would I recommend this book? Sure - with a grain or two of salt. And maybe the Google machine open beside you. There is so much of interest in the book - I had vaguely heard of Williamsburg and knew next to nothing about Hasidism, so it was nice to be able to find more information and some background while I was reading.

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