Sunday, January 3, 2016

Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman

"For awhile I thought I could un-Jew myself. Then I realized that being Jewish is not in the ritual or the action. It is in one's history. I am proud of being Jewish, because I think that's where my indomitable spirit comes from, passed down from ancestors who burned in the fires of persecution because of their blood, their faith."

Some of my fellow agnostic/atheistic Jewish colleagues suggested reading this book as a department and engaging in a group discussion for our final Professional Development day back in May (because what I do love about being Jewish is that we see the humor in life and proceed self-deprecatingly). Well, major #librarianfail on my part--I only got about 20 pages in, and when I realized I wouldn't be able to make it to the book discussion, gave up trying to read the memoir for several months...until the new school year was about to begin, and I gave myself a deadline. 

When I did finally attempt reading this memoir for a second time, I had a hard time getting very far. First of all, I found the storyline to be fairly slow-moving in the sense that I wasn't immediately engaged enough to want to open the book again. But more so than that, I compare the experience to how I felt while watching the documentary, Jesus Camp,  a documentary about children getting indoctrinated to spread the Christian word (putting that mildly) that is only 87 minutes in length but took me about four hours to complete because I paused it what seemed like every few minutes to call my best friend for her insights. I remember feeling completely exasperated and saying something like, "Is this real life??" 

As I read this book, I kept thinking about how my dad used to make my sister and me watch Fiddler on the Roof on an annual basis and suddenly had a new-found appreciation for the milestones we've evolved. I assumed this book was written by someone much older than me until I got to a page that started with: "It was the 11th day of September, 2001..." What?! Hold the phone. The author is younger than me?! Also, she lived in Brooklyn and had no idea that the towers had been hit by airplanes and subsequently collapsed until her grandfather "sinfully" bought a Wall Street Journal and borrowed a radio to listen to the news about what was happening across the river?! 

I gave up on the concept of religion after being told at 12 years old that I would go to hell if I didn't accept Jesus in my heart. This pissed me off. I became an angry, life-questioning, early-menstruating pre-teen. I stopped wearing a Jewish star necklace, and I tried never to pay less than other people so as not to encourage the "cheap" stereotype; I no longer wanted to be identified by the only religion I knew and loved. 
As I got older, less hormonal and more political, my anger subsided and was replaced by a desire to understand:
-Why do Christians think they have the answers to everything?
-Why would Christians tell non-believers/gay people that they're going to hell if they're supposed to love everyone?
-Who cares if they tell me I'm going to hell because Jews don't believe in hell's existence and therefore I can't go there because I'm Jewish?
-Also, Jesus was a long-haired Jewish hippie socialist (right?), soooo....what the heck are we all disagreeing about in the first place?

My point being that although I had given up on aligning with monotheistic religious beliefs (I lean mostly towards Buddhism if I have to choose) or this god figure that supposedly "loves everyone" but has all these exceptions to that rule, I remember how significant the mind-shift felt about 20 years ago when the Jewish congregation my family belongs to, albeit of the reformed sector, transformed all of the prayers to be inclusive of the female players of biblical times. Instead of only listing the men in prayers, they added the women, and everyone received a special insert to follow along separate from the ancient prayer book. I remember thinking, "How has recognizing women never been a thing until now?" 

(We're weaving our way back to Unorthodox now.) What killed me while reading this book--my boyfriend recounted he would hear me yell, "WHAT!" followed by the sound of a book being angrily slammed shut--is that I never had reason to be exasperated at my own religion until taking the time to read about why one young woman made the decision to leave her Hasidic roots. 
As a female librarian, who was brought up by Jewish parents who revered the education of their two daughters above all else, it was mind-boggling to read Deborah's commentary about how secretive she had to be just to get her hands on reading materials:

"His mother has told him not to let me read any more library books, as if my illicit glimpses into their pages were the cause of all our problems."

"In school, I hear hushed rumors about a Jewish library in Williamsburg, hosted once a week in someone's apartment, where you can take out two kosher, censored books, all written by Jewish authors. If I can get books from a kosher library, I won't have to hide them under my mattress."

Judaism is a matrilineal religion, meaning a child is considered Jewish so long as their mother is also Jewish. If the religion itself is being passed down through the woman, how are women treated like second-class citizens and denied the right to education and knowledge? Call me crazy, but none of this makes any sense to me. Although I didn't love the book, I applaud Deborah for taking control of her own life and bringing to light this antiquated, shall I say misogynistic, way of life. I am proud to be a progressive Jew who loves to read and inquire about the world and am even more grateful now more than ever that my parents encouraged me to be a life-long learner. 

No comments: