riddle, wrapped in a mystery

Trigger warning: One of the books reviewed here contains a brief episode of sexual assault, which I allude to in my review.

I had originally planned to pair the first book in this post, Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, with another book that I read at about the same time, before I left D.C. in May. However, I just finished Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: My Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, and I think it’s a better fit with the former.

Both are memoirs (my favorite genre) written by women who struggle in becoming who they are, Hamilton’s journey less purposeful than Feldman’s. Both women suffered by my curious googling after finishing their stories.

At the end of April, while in New York for a conference, I met my friend Megan (and another friend of hers) for dinner. They had chosen Prune, Hamilton’s small East Village eatery. Both had read her memoir. After the fantastic (although not so vegetarian- or kosher-friendly) food, I decided to check it out. I don’t eat most of the food that Hamilton loves or prepares or writes about, and my mouth still watered. She has a simple aesthetic as a cook: To use simple, real ingredients to make delicious food. Even a non-foodie like me knows how rare that is. I remember and still think about some of the dishes she describes, and I wonder if they are really as good as she says — and if I’ve wasted years being a vegetarian and then observing kashrut.

Two quick asides about the cover: First of all, I had no clue that the art was an upside-down chicken head. Seeing the digital image in this post now makes that mistake seem ridiculous (it took my husband to disabuse me of the notion that it was an odd kind of shellfish mentioned in one of her recipes), but I think it was hard to get the distance necessary to discern the image correctly at a book’s usual distance from one’s face. The second thing is the endorsement by Anthony Bourdain. He proclaims, “Magnificent. Simply the best memoir by a chef ever. Ever.” This never failed to make me giggle each time I resumed the book: How many chef memoirs are out there? (Yes, yes: probably more than I know.) But more to the point, Anthony Bourdain wrote his own memoir about his professional life as a chef. I am not running to check it out from the library, because it is clearly at most the second best memoir by a chef.

Hamilton came by her style — and her success — the hard way. The book takes the reader from her childhood in rural Pennsylvania, where her cooking education began in her mother’s kitchen, to her teenage years in New York as a coked-out waitress, to college and graduate school, and back to New York, where she worked terrible catering jobs until she started Prune. The story finally ends in Italy, the mecca of good food, where her husband’s family lives (more about that later).

Hamilton is a great writer. Her graduate work was in creative writing, and she tells wonderful stories. She also has the distance from most of the events of the book to be able to make them coherent and shape them into a larger narrative (perspective which Feldman lacks, but more on that below). What was missing from Hamilton was explanation and motivation, particularly for some of her more unorthodox (see what I did there?) choices. After a lot of turmoil in her childhood (her parents’ divorce, financial troubles), Hamilton struggles to make it to and to stay in college. And then she dispatches her four years there in mere sentences — and is then suddenly off to graduate school, with nary an explanation for her choice of post-undergraduate education. She is also by then in a relationship with a woman, who follows her to Michigan and returns with her to New York.

Her foray into restaurant ownership is just as, if not more, mysterious. As Hamilton tells it, a neighbor happens to drop by to ask if she wants to see some real estate he owns. Her catering jobs leading to no foreseeable career, Hamilton essentially decides to buy the space, once home to a failed restaurant, on the spot – but with no indication that she has ever before considered this step. Just as suddenly, the restaurant is not only up and running – again, without explanation of how she started the business, which by her own admission she knows nothing about – but hugely successful, with lines, stretching down the street, of customers waiting for Saturday and Sunday brunch.

And! Hamilton is by this time pregnant with her second child. The father of both is an Italian doctor whom she started seeing while still living with her girlfriend, each without knowledge of the other. The reader is again offered almost nothing to understand this choice. Please note: I generally believe that folks do not owe others explanations of their sexuality, but as this is a memoir, and the choice, unusual, a fuller exploration seems warranted, especially in light of her clear ambiguity about the relationship with her children’s father.

Hamilton never lives with him, though they co-parent. This decision, however, seems less by design and more by inertia – like the pregnancies. She falls for the doctor after he cooks her a delicious, authentic Italian meal from scratch; indeed, the attractions of his extended Italian family in Rome, his mother’s cooking, and their rural villa in Puglia seem more compelling than he himself.

Later in their relationship, he attempts to cook the wooing meal for her again but forgets a key step in the process, rendering the homemade pasta disappointingly edible. Hamilton feels similarly about his family as their charms began to wane, the Roman apartment becoming cramped and hot, the food becoming predictable and uninventive, and the villa becoming provincial and isolating. The book ends with the impending dissolution of her relationship.

Curious about so many unanswered questions, I googled Hamilton for more information. The (perhaps unsubstantiated) gossip indicates that her divorce was less about her growing disaffection for the Italian side of her chosen family than the fact that she was having an affair with her sister’s husband. A potential second affair – and I use that word carefully, since there is no evidence that the parties involved either time had open relationships – combined with the bafflement about her life’s trajectory – ultimately made the story end for me on a sour note. I don’t know know what to believe about her experience, and that seems odd in a memoir.

Since I started by judging Hamilton’s book by its cover, I begin by judging Feldman’s by its name. As my husband pointed out as soon as he saw me reading it: “I’m sure it’s a great read, but that title is terrible. Did the editors have a contest to see who could come up with the most clichéd name in the shortest amount of time?”

Unorthodox was featured in Lilith magazine along with several other books about women’s experiences with Orthodox Judaism. Feldman grew up a Satmar Hasid in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn speaking only Yiddish; was given the minimal high school education – complete with the daily hour of “English” that allowed the religious school to maintain state accreditation – as befits a girl in that community; was married to a man chosen by her family at age 17; and became a mother at age 19. She left her husband a few years after her son was born.

Feldman’s telling makes it clear from the outset that she simply doesn’t belong in the world of her family of origin. She wants to read books in English – and sneaks into the public library to get them, hiding them in her room – and instinctively feels that the Hasidic approach to mental illness (from which bother her uncle and her father suffer) and to sexual assault (of which she is a victim), of not seeking professional help from the outside world, is troubling. She is fated to leave the community, as her mother did years before. She feels it instinctively and deeply, and from her position on the other side, that feeling certainly seems to have been validated.

The book begins with Feldman sitting down to a meal with her estranged mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for years. Writing a book about her experience requires brutal honestly, she figures, and she wants to start with answers from her mother. But this beginning seems only to serve to burnish her credentials as a writer – she’s telling us she set out to be honest, so what follows must therefore be so! – because we’re aren’t actually privy to what her mother says. It’s only later in the story that we discover, along with Feldman when she watches the documentary Trembling Before G-d, about queer folks in Orthodox Jewish communities, that her mother is gay.

The memoir is a quick read, and I zoomed through it, especially when I realized that tales of her married sexual life were forthcoming. (Yes, I am that prurient.) That part of the story did not disappoint: Her marriage begins with a year of physically and emotionally painful attempts to actually have sex, a problem made worse by the fact that everyone in the small community knows about and weighs in on the saga as it occurs. Whatever the root cause of the difficulty, it is also exacerbated by the profound lack of sexual education in the community: Feldman recounts the story of her neighbor, whose husband’s haste, force, and ignorance on their wedding night caused her colon to rupture when they inadvertently had anal instead of vaginal intercourse. Feldman and her husband are similarly clueless. It’s lurid details like this, along with many others, about religious doctrine and anti-Israel rallies, about arranged marriages and purity laws, and that make this a fascinating glimpse into a notoriously insular community.

As the narrative winds down with her decision to leave her husband and Hasidism, she describes the difficulties that this will entail, particularly in gaining at least joint custody of her son. But, in a bizarre omission, nothing of her preparations or the legal battle are recounted. The book ends with her and her son in a new apartment, but we have no idea how they got there.

And so I googled Feldman. Unsurprisingly, the book has come under vitriolic attack by the Satmar Hasidim she describes. And unfortunately, at least some of their objections seem to be warranted: One of the more gruesome accounts in the book (which I do not need to recount here; it will be immediately obvious) was revealed after the book’s publication to be dubious as best. She also omitted the existence of a little sister, and the timeline of her mother’s abandonment has been called into question. Custody of her son was won only after she hid with him at various friends’ houses for several months and survived protracted legal action by her husband’s family.

Unlike Hamilton, Feldman ultimately comes across as young a naïve – she’s writing mere months after her departure, and she is scathing in her indictment of almost everyone in her family. As I finished the book, I wondered whether time would allow her to take a more charitable – or at least more balanced – view of their actions, and if she might end up regretting some of her words.

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