Book Club

Skepchick Book Club: Unorthodox

(Note: The bottom of this post contains information for next month’s book club)

Welcome back to the Skepchick Book Club! This month’s book was Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman. I’ll admit, sometimes I struggle to get all the way through the book club books (I prefer dystopic future and other fiction) because non-fiction can be densely packed with facts, but I had no trouble getting through this fascinating memoir and I even had trouble putting it down at night. For those who read it, what were your thoughts on the book? And if you didn’t read the book, but have seen the author speak, share your thoughts on that as well.

Deborah starts the book with her childhood in the orthodox Satmar community in Williamsburg and the rules involved in growing up female. She sneaks secular books under her mattress (she mentions Matilda, which is also one of my favorite childhood books). At 17 years old, she was arranged to marry a man she had only met once, and the first year of her marriage was fraught with sexual dysfunction. She had to deal with vaginismus (which is more common among women in strict religious communities), a vaginal septum, and panic attacks (brought on by the pressure of not being able to consummate her relationship immediately). And it didn’t help that her husband treated her like a mattress with a hole in it. By the time she was 19, she had her first (and thus far only) child. As time passed, she started to become more rebellious and disillusioned with the community (and her marriage), until she finally left it all behind (and took her son).


The book is vague on exactly what happened when she left, but some of these details can be filled in by searching around the internet. Some people have taken issue with her memoir because some small details have been changed or omitted. For example, she doesn’t mention her younger sister (who went to live with her mother). I found a lot of these criticisms to be suspiciously nit-picky. She didn’t fabricate the story, she just edited certain parts out to protect people or other editorial reasons. She has responded to the criticism on her blog and reactions to the book have been noted elsewhere. The fact is that she is a woman from the Satmar community and she has a strong voice. If her community treated her the same way it treated the town pedophile, they would leave her alone, but instead there are those who wish to silence her. Here are a few more links:

The only part of the book where I was a little disappointed was when she took up smoking, but I understand why she did it. Cigarettes and women’s rebellion have been tied together since the 1920s. And on that note, many of the Boston book clubbers mentioned that one of the more shocking things about the book was that even though it all took place within the past 20 years, it felt like it was closer to 100 years ago.


This Month’s Themed Dessert: Wacky Cake

I was in the mood to make a quick cake with the ingredients I already had in my cupboard, and I stumbled upon this recipe for Wacky Cake. The recipe was developed during wartime rationing and so it omits butter and eggs, but everyone who tried the cake thought it was moist and delicious. The secret is the vinegar and baking soda in the batter, which create bubbles when mixed and make the cake light and fluffy. So that’s how the cake fits with the unorthodox theme, because it’s delicious despite missing some key ingredients.

My piece of cake seconds before it was nommed up. Yum!
My piece of cake, seconds before it was nommed up. Yum!

For the best results, make this cake right in the pan (another bonus, less dishes to wash!), and immediately pop it in the oven after mixing so that the vinegar reaction can work its magic. Also, don’t overmix, it’s OK to have a few streaks of flour in the batter (or else your cake will be dense and dry). Serve with ice cream or whipped cream for extra deliciousness. (Recipe adapted from America’s Test Kitchen.)


1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup natural cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon table salt
5 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup water
Confectioners’ sugar


  1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Coat 8-inch-square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray.
  2. Whisk flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, and salt together in pan. Make 1 large and 2 small craters in dry ingredients. Add oil to large crater and vinegar and vanilla separately to remaining small craters. Pour water into pan (over all ingredients), and mix until just a few streaks of flour remain. Immediately put pan in oven.
  3. Bake until toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out with a few moist crumbs attached, about 30 minutes. Cool in pan, then dust with confectioners’ sugar. (If tightly wrapped, cake will keep for 3 days at room temperature.)


Next Book Club: Because I Said So!


On February 24th, I will be posting the next installment of the Skepchick Book Club and we will be discussing  Because I Said So!: The Truth Behind the Myths, Tales, and Warnings Every Generation Passes Down to Its Kids by Ken Jennings. I hope that you can join us in the comments and let us know your own myths from childhood! See you then!


Mary Brock works as an Immunology scientist by day and takes care of a pink-loving princess child by night. She likes cloudy days, crafting, cooking, and Fall weather in New England.

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  1. I really enjoyed Unorthodox. I found it nearly impossible to place it in a mid-90s/2000’s setting. In my mind, everything appeared to be from 1920s NYC. It’d throw me off when she’d reference something like listening to Hillary Duff and bringing me back into the fact that this is happening NOW.

    It shocked me to read so much backlash about Deborah’s story. Many people more liberal Jewish communities have called her a liar for much of what was written, including the story about a father murdering his son.

    I was HORRIFIED with what she went through medically, and not understanding how her vagina works. I cannot begin to understand how this part of Judaism finds worth in withholding basic information about anatomy. The entire process of the wiping yourself twice a day for seven days after menstruation and then having to bring those pads for someone to examine (before a special ritual bath) just floored me. Yes, I suppose that is rather ethnocentric of me. But I suppose there are certain rites and rituals that I refuse to accept because I find them so damaging to women (or really anyone involved.)

    Count me as happy that Deborah got out (and yes, also slightly disappointed that she took up smoking also!)

    1. I loved the book too and agree that the beginning of the book felt like something from the 1930’s or earlier, however once she left Williamsburg I had no trouble placing the story in modern times. Feldman’s stories of being constantly hungry (especially after reaching puberty) reminded me of some of the stories my mother told me of growing up under a strict parent in the 1940’s so I always figured that may have been part of why I had trouble dating that part of the book.

      One thing I found my self wondering about is that early in the book Feldman talks about how the Satmars oppose the state of Israel and consider it a sin to return until the messiah arrives. Later in the book after her cousin attempts to rape her it is mentioned that he later has to marry an Israeli woman and move there. According to their beliefs would that be essentialy dooming his soul? The Kabbalist that visited her was also from Israel and I was surprised the opinions of an outsider would be so valued.

      Speaking of the Kabbalist, in addition to the part where Feldman took up smoking was also a little disappointed that she placed so much stock in that Kabbalist’s predictions and wish she might have mentioned anything he may have gotten wrong. All we got was the part where the matchmaker felt underpaid and his prediction that the number 9 would be important. Maybe like many others she only remembers the hits…

      1. I agree about the Kabbalist. I thought the reference to 9 was just a little too perfect. And it’s possible that the matchmaker always felt underpaid.

        I felt bad for the poor woman that the cousin was married off too, but I didn’t think about the Israel connection.

    2. I thought at least the 14-rag cleanliness ritual would be a good way to delay having sex. In a relationship like hers, I would’ve used that to my advantage.

      Also, in the part of the book where she described not finding her vagina, I thought, “Uh oh, she probably has vaginismus.” I saw a “True Life” episode about it recently, yowza!

      1. Yeah, I could definitely see using the clean rags to an advantage if you didn’t want to have sex with your husband. But just imagine if you DID want to, and you had an irregular period. Would you EVER be allowed? Would they just make you sit in a bath 24/7?

        1. Good question!

          On a related note, while the 2-weeks on/off system usually works for 28 day cycles (when trying to conceive), some women have shorter cycles or phases and in order to get pregnant, they would need to have sex during their “unclean” time. One solution is IVF, but since some Hasidic men consider it a sin to masturbate, even if the purpose is to conceive a child, there are special “collection condoms” that the couple can use to collect and save the semen after sex. Then later, when the woman is “dirty” (not my preferred choice of word), she can have IVF with the reserved semen and hopefully conceive. Interesting, huh?

          1. Speaking of which, I thought it was odd how Deborah’s community considered masturbation and homosexuality a sin, and yet her husband also admitted that the boys in his school would jerk each other off. I presume it must have been one of those loopholes her grandfather told her about.

  2. I listened to an interview with the author, and will look out for the book. I think the response was sad but predictable, many of these communities are romanticised in some Jewish circles, from what I have seen as being more religious is seen as a good thing, and there is a certain nostalgia for holding onto the old traditions. So when someone writes a book exploding that myth, it will inevitably cause an instinctive backlash. There are more books and movies coming out and I think that will help, both forcing these communities to reform and hopefully liberal Jews will provide more support for those who want to leave. The movie ‘Eyes Wide Open’ about two gay orthodox Jewish men is excellent for example. In some circles these orthodox groups are seen as embarrasing.

  3. I didn’t read the book, but several months ago I was reading/watching videos about it. I was curious about people’s reactions so I did google discussion search, read comments in the review on her book, etc.

    I remember thinking that she was under a terrible amount of scrutiny, if that many people are looking that closely at your words it’s impossible to not come out as a liar regardless of who you are or what you say. And then like this post mentions she has legitimate reasons to omit or alter certain information. Autobiographies tend to be considered a bias, albeit valuable, source for a reason!

    The other thing I thought was that it was just terrible the way she was being treated. I remember in the amazon reviews someone literally compared her to Hitler (this was a jewish person).

    1. To Hitler?! That’s just wrong, especially in this context. It just shows you how dangerous it is to be a woman with a point of view in that community.

  4. I saw Deborah Feldman’s presentation at NECSS last year. To say the least, she was awe inspiring. I have so much respect for her courage in leaving the Satmar community. Though I can say I’m tolerant when it comes to respecting other cultures or religions in what they do in their daily lives, I have a hard time justifying what the ultra conservative Satmar or Lubavitchers think and do about their female members. Deborah Feldman really touched a nerve with her ex community. Most people would never say “boo” to how Hasidim function in their daily lives for fear of being considered “racist” or ” anti Semitic,” but one of their own got the vitriol usually reserved for outsiders. Their calumny toward her just proved her point more than anything else she said.

    1. It’s funny, I don’t think that they realize how their criticism reflects back on their community instead of sticking to her. I kept seeing the same things pointed out as criticisms (she left out her younger sister, her mother didn’t leave her as a toddler, she went to a different school when she was a little kid, etc) and it just seemed so petty.

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