Book review – “Unorthodox” by Deborah Feldman

We are living in an age where minorities are beginning to find their voices. Many people who have experienced discrimination are angry. Their talents have been undervalued, their lives and their health have been damaged, their daily lived experience has, for many, been characterised by fear and by acts of hostility. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is rocking the United States to its very foundations and leading to some intense friction between people who have been historically oppressed and who are saying enough is enough, and people who fear what they might lose. Some of these, no doubt, subscribe to the view that the oppressed somehow deserve their lesser status. The movement has taken hold in the UK and throughout Europe too, although it does not appear to be quite as toxic as in the USA. The conversation we all now need to engage in will be a difficult one.

In the last week or two, we have seen a resurgence of another discrimination issue which is much more long-standing, that of anti-semitism; the UK Labour Party is currently considering a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on anti-semitism in its recent past. The full report will not be published for some time yet, but this will be a painful period for a party which has tolerance and plurality at its heart. The rapper Wiley was (eventually) banned from various social media platforms after making posting anti-semitic remarks recently, repeating discredited conspiracy theories. Several celebrities and public figures boycotted Twitter in protest at the failure of the social media giant to take down Wiley immediately.

Unorthodox imgIt therefore seems timely that I recently read the memoir Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman. Deborah is in her mid-thirties and lives in Berlin, with her young son. However, she grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn as a member of the Satmar sect of Hasidic Jews. She was brought up by her grandparents; her parents separated when she was very young. Her father was a man with sub-normal intelligence, though the precise nature of his disability or illness was never identified. Deborah’s mother was English, the daughter of poor divorced Jewish parents (though not Hasidic), who was unlikely ever to be able to marry well. The marriage was effectively one of convenience for both of them and Deborah was born soon after. The marriage broke down quite quickly, however, and Deborah’s mother was compelled to leave. The community put enough pressure on to ensure she left her child behind.

Unorthodox is the story of Deborah’s childhood and teenage years as a member of this closed community. It provides a fascinating insight into the norms of this ultra-orthodox group. The Hasidis have separate schools and girls are not permitted to have a full education. In fact, boys aren’t either really, they are just educated to a different end. The girls are expected to marry young, very young, and have many children. From this book I learned that Hasidis (and I hope I am representing this accurately), are opposed to the state of Israel, it being a secular state. They also believe that the Holocaust was a punishment (divine punishment?) for Zionism and by the assimilation of non-orthodox Jews with other societies. I realise the differences are probably far more complex than this, so I hope any Jewish readers will forgive any simplification – I am happy to be corrected.

The Satmar sect to which Deborah and her family belong, continue to follow centuries-old customs, which include, for example, arranged marriage, separation of the sexes and the requirement for women to wear wigs. Menstruating women and girls are considered unclean and must endure cleansing rituals before they are permitted to have sex again. Young people are taught nothing about sex, however. When she is married to a shy and inept young man at the age of seventeen, Deborah does not even know what her body parts are supposed to do. The marriage is disastrous, for both of them, and is not consummated for a year. When, finally, Deborah and her husband manage to have sex, she becomes pregnant very quickly and gives birth to a son at the age of nineteen.

To a western European reader, of no particular religious persuasion, the account of life in the community is both jaw-dropping and enlightening. It is genuinely hard to imagine how such a sect can continue to exist, particularly in the melting-pot of New York. This book, however, is not political, rather it is intensely personal. Deborah develops a curiosity from a very young age; she is interested in books by, for example Jane Austen and Roald Dahl, but she is forced to read them in secret. Her reading opens her eyes to other possibilities, however, and she glimpses a vision of a life outside the community. Her good fortune is that in some ways she never felt fully integrated, her parents having separated and her mother having come from outside the community; we are witnessing discrimination within discrimination within discrimination. This is quite telling in itself.

As she grows older, Deborah sees the cracks in the community – the absurdity of some of the customs, the cruelty these can give rise to, how the women conspire in misguided ways against one another to perpetuate their misery, and the hypocrisy in the political power struggles in the community. Deborah finally escapes the sect. You would think that a curious and intelligent girl on the doorstep of one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world find it easy to leave, but reading the book gave me an insight into the degree of control the elders hold over the young people, particularly the young women, disempowering them psychologically, financially and intellectually. Perhaps this comes from a place of fear, but that is not the subject of this book – it is one woman’s story of escaping a kind of captivity and finding her own mind.

It is a gripping account which I recommend highly. It has also been adapted and made into a television series by Netflix – something else to go on my ‘must-watch’ list!

Discrimination and its effects are common literary themes – what are your recommendations for books on this topic?

 

Book review: “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou

When Maya Angelou died in 2014 at the age of 86, she was one of the towering figures of American culture and politics. Poet, author, civil rights activist, speaker, friend and advisor to figures of national and international importance, her career was, by any standards, glittering. And yet, her start was a decidedly inauspicious one. In the late 1960s she was persuaded to begin writing an autobiography and she went on to publish it in seven volumes, the latest one appearing in 2013, just a year before her death. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is the first volume and covers her childhood and coming of age. Her early life in Arkansas featured parental abandonment, overt racism, sexual abuse, discrimination and poverty. It is a sobering tale, and a testament to her immense ability, that someone with that kind of background could become such a great and important figure, well-known not just in the United States, but throughout the world.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings imgI chose this book for my 2018 Facebook Reading Challenge. The June theme was an autobiography, a tricky category since enjoyment can often depend on your feelings about the author. I also wanted to avoid titles that would most likely have been ghost-written. After thinking about it for some time, I chose this, the first volume in Angelou’s memoir series, and the one which is often considered to be the best. It can be read as a stand-alone.

I had read it myself many years ago; I have written on here before that at some point in my teens, I resolved to work my way along my local library bookshelves starting at ‘A’! I read the first five volumes (the fifth was published in 1986 when I would have been 18, so I imagine I did not read them all consecutively). I remember I enjoyed the book at the time, and parts of it were familiar, coming back to it so many years later, not least the horrific scene where she is raped by her mother’s lover. This aspect of Maya’s story, like all the other terrible instances of injustice she experienced, is told without self-pity (apart, perhaps from the toothache!) or sentimentality, and this, I think, is the mark of her greatness as a writer.

I loved also, the evocation of the setting – 1930s Arkansas is set out vividly before us, particularly the evangelical Christianity of the black community, the tense relations with their white neighbours on the other side of town, and the poverty of the community, scraping a meagre living in the most challenging of circumstances, from cotton-picking, domestic service or, in the case of Maya’s grandmother “Momma”, from running a small business.

I also loved the language – the Deep South comes across so profoundly in the words and phrases used by the author, such as the wonderful term “powhitetrash” to refer to the prejudiced white townspeople of Stamps who blight the lives of the black community with their bullying, their cruelty and their vulgar behaviour. And I loved the characters, from the young Maya, to her elder brother Bailey, whom she adored, to Momma, the starched Christian woman of steadfast values and brilliant business acumen. The author brings them alive so skilfully that they walk the pages of this book.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a must-read. I trust that it is on academic reading lists throughout the United States, but it should also form part of the historical context for any student of American history. It is not an easy read and the nature of the language definitely slows the pace (it took me twice as long to read as any other book of this size), but you would do well to read it slowly as the pace draws you into the languid lifestyle of the setting. Someone on the Facebook group listened to the audiobook, narrated by Angelou, herself, which sounds like a must-listen. Coincidentally, the book was also abridged for Radio 4’s book of the week recently, and that should still be available online. It was very good.

Highly recommended, should probably even be on everyone’s books bucket list.

If you have read Maya Angelou’s memoirs what impact did they have on you?

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