Devouring the Knish
Unpious.com's lengthy "roundtable" pre-release withering denunciation of Feldman's book has been widely read and debated among both the OTD sector and the fringe community. As noted in some of my previous articles on this topic, Feldman's book has, puzzlingly, emerged as a ligature between a sizable portion in the OTD sector and the fringes of Haredi Judaism.
Many in the OTD world are seeking to distance themselves from Feldman's sentiments by proclaiming themselves to be "post-modernist". THEY, unlike Feldman, have moved on in life and no longer feel resentful toward the community they left behind, while Feldman's book is brimming with anger and bitterness -- they contend. Furthermore, Feldman is lying through her teeth! How do they prove it? Well, let's nitpick it like a legal treatise or a blatt gemara and twist it out of context.
There you have it, Feldman is all lies. Hasidim are happy -- their lifestyle is vindicated. OTD's are happy -- they are much too "sophisticated" to harbor --or to EVER have harbored-- any ill will against their former community.
Now Unpious has adopted a new stratagem. Instead of appearing outright hostile,they recruited "The Knish" guy --one who goes by the nom de guerrere Mordechai Ovitz and is avowedly Modern Orthodox but does not reveal his true identity-- to review the book. In its twisted logic, it seems, a Modern Orthodox (MO) fellow can be trusted with a fair review of Feldman since he doesn't hail from a Hasidic background and thus cannot be accused of peer jealousy or revenge against their ex-community. So let's see what he has to say:
NOTE: Before continuing, please read the Knish's review of Unorthodox on Unpious.com. It is also highly advisable to read the book before passing any judgement, for good or for bad, and before proceeding to behold me devouring he Knish, as follows:
Knish: "Regarding the accuracy of claims made in the book, I’m not qualified to comment."
...and that's exactly what he goes on to do. Not only does this fellow not know what goes on in the Hasidic world, by his own admission. Not only does he go on to do precisely what he isn't qualified to do: comment. But he also passes judgement. "The book is deeply flawed". He "knows" that Feldman's report of a story being told her regarding the Penis-gate murder is inaccurate. He "knows" that there is plenty of affection and compliments being bandied about in Williamsburg.
Knish: "Hella Winston is a fine reporter, but I doubt it taxed her excessively to find out the truth behind the story of the alleged murder."
Are you kidding me? You call this "fine reporting"? You now pretend to know that it's "factually incorrect" that the boy was murdered?
I don't have any doubt either about her investigation not having taxed her excessively. That's because there never was an investigation. This whole story is about an alleged cover up. By definition that means that the community --including officials in the village government who are able to manipulate their county and state overlords to some degree-- is attempting to cover up the true circumstances of the death and proclaim it a suicide when it may have in fact been a homicide. So Winston goes and interviews the family who is alleged to be the murderer and the KJ village spokesman who is alleged to be part of the conspiracy. You call that an investigation?
So she says there is a death certificate. Feldman never said that a death certificate was NEVER issued. As she narrates in the book, when the story was recounted to her on that very same day, the body was reportedly buried without a death certificate having been issued AT THE TIME the story was recounted, in contravention of the law. That's what Winston SHOULD be investigating: WHEN the death certificate was issued and whether state officials are certifying to have examined the body. Instead she conveniently ignores those pivotal questions, and instead shifts the focus onto irrelevant matters such as the way the boy died, which isn't in dispute, and the age of the boy which doesn't matter one bit.
Knish: "The book is also tainted with myths, mistakes, and poor editing. The very first sentence contains a myth about Satmar (that it’s named after Saint Mary; it isn’t)".
Who cares? She is not an investigator or a scholar. The litmus test for acceptable narration in this type of genre is not whether events and facts are true; it's whether they are BELIEVED to be true. The fact of the matter is --and Knish probably agrees with me here-- that in folk etymology, tracing its origin all the way back to Hungary, the town of Satu Mare was believed to be derived from St. Mary. That's where the buck stops. Satmar inherited this etymology and so did Feldman; end of story.
And the bible says that Isaac was so called because he and his wife laughed at God's promise of a son. Does that make the Bible "deeply flawed" when it is discovered that that's not the real etymology of the name, Mr. MO?
Knish: "Her indiscriminate mixing of aberrations with things that are common in Satmar damages the book’s flow and accuracy, even as a memoir. The book is riddled with it: that a Satmar woman would expect to never fly on a plane (pg. 9)". Mr. Knish, I really don't know if you're trying to pull a fast one here on readers who haven't read the book or you sincerely misunderstood it. Let me quote it for you, buddy:
"I know it’s strange for me to enjoy visiting the airport itself, when I know I will never even get on a plane, but I find it thrilling to stand next to my father as he waits for the person he is supposed to pick up... -- Feldman, Deborah. Unorthodox (p. 9). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
She is talking about never getting on the plane on those visits to the airport accompanying her father; not about NEVER IN LIFE getting on a plane. How can you misread this?
Knish: Feldman's lack of sympathy for Chaya and Eli.
Very good point there; she is very subjective in that respect. Ultimately, however, the book does not purport to be balanced. As a memoir, it should be judged on what it purports to do and that is express the sentiment that she harbored while contending with characters that made her life miserable. It is HER perspective that the audience primarily wants to hear; not a full, balanced analysis of the root of the quibbles with her various antagonists.
Knish: "The end of the book makes pretty clear that she claims no loss, and definitely no regret, from what she left behind. But life is rarely that neat, and the Satmar community for all its flaws is more than a conglomeration of horrors".
Why is it so unbelievable that she perceives no loss and no regret? Remember, according to her narrative she was treated as a misfit and nuisance all along -- and she was aware of the stigma that marked her. Why wouldn't a person in such a situation breath a sigh of relief and rejoice without looking back, after leaving such a punitive environment? Satmar indeed isn't a "conglomeration of horrors" for most of its members, but for her --and many others-- it WAS! What's so hard to grasp?
Then when The Knish is done wielding the stick, he transitions to dangling the carrot: snooty apologetics. [I'm paraphrasing here]: "I don't blame Feldman for leaving Judaism altogether; after Satmar brainwashed her that it held a monopoly on Yiddishkeit, she was understandably and pitiably too shallow to see the redemptive aspects of Judaism, e.g. Modern Orthodoxy, what I practice".
Hey Mr. Knish, has it occurred to you the possibility that Feldman is simply not interested in MO? Maybe what she wants is "swimming with dolphins, boating, biking, camping" just like the MO do, PLUS, not practicing Orthodox Judaism altogether? Since when is Orthodoxy the "One and Only Right Way to God", employing an expression of yours? FYI, there are millions of Jews in America --the overwhelming majority in fact-- who swim with the dolphins and boat AND adhere to forms of Judaism not substantially different from what Feldman has now adopted for herself. Why does she have to experiment with MO on her path out of what you admit is a repressive, maladaptive society? Is it because MO happens to be agreeable to YOU? She overlooked MO; so what, it's her right.
Knish: "she shares with many ex-fundamentalists the trait of being too easily impressed. The teachers she meets are all paragons of brilliance..."
I wonder if you have any clue at all of what it's like growing up in Satmar Williamsburg? And this after prefacing with a self-disqualification from commenting on a lifestyle you're not familiar with. I grew up in Satmar and I can testify that given the utter disdain in which secular education is held and its sheer absence from the conscience of Hasidic adherents, she has every reason to be impressed with such a novel phenomenon. In fact, reading her memoir, that's precisely what we expect. If she weren't highly moved by her first encounter with a scholar in her favorite field, literature, her narrative would THEN have been suspect. I too was very impressed the first time I read about evolution, for instance. And his is NOT a bad thing; I am proud of it.
Knish: She refers to her desire to not be Chasidic as a desire to be “normal.” (Pg. 214) “I’m going to be normal, so normal no one will ever know.” On pg. 230 she writes that she doesn’t “own any normal clothing” so she buys jeans. But normal depends on context, and even wearing jeans can be a sign of conformity to a sub-sect (just ask the skinny jeans-wearing hipsters that share her maligned Williamsburg).
Oh Knish, come on, this is the most lame argument ever. You're gonna preach about cultural relativism to someone who grew up in a society where mainstream cultural ideas and icons were not even discussed, let alone considered a valid lifestyle? Feldman's task after leaving such a cloistered society is to enrich her life experiences and exposure to the mainstream, NOT to philosophize how it's possible theoretically to deem the fundamentalist Satmar culture "normative", as opposed to the moderate mainstream.
And just for the record. while I would consider entertaining the notion hat there is more than one norm in out contemporary, heterogeneous and pluralistic society, Satmar is hardly a good example of a viable constituent in the American melange. The Satmar sub-culture is more like a cult that thrives on indoctrination, ignorance and restriction of physical and mental freedom than a valid alternative to mainstream society. Being a member of Satmar is not like deciding to join the hipster community in North Williamsburg or choosing to pursue a Wall Street career and mingle with the 1%. Satmar is not a variation of the normative; it's a world unto itself, a life apart.
Oh Knish, you sure make a scrumptious meal! My favorite: Kasha Knish...