A Glimpse Inside the World of Religious Extremism

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Jessica Chmara
Jewish Journal Staff

Four new books touch on the topic of religious extremism.

One shares the true story of a former American soldier battling fanaticism on the warfront. Another is a work of nonfiction, although loosely based on the author’s upbringing in a Satmar home in France. One tells the story of a Jewish American girl who abandons her home in mainstream America to move to Pakistan and become an ardent voice of Islamic extremism, and the last is the true story of a girl who grew up in a Satmar community in Williamsburg, N.Y., who ran away with her young son to live in New York City.

Although each journey is unique, these books offer enlightening perspectives on religious beliefs and fanaticism, which will surely lead to spirited and engaging discussions.

Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots
Deborah Feldman
Simon & Schuster, 2012

Deborah Feldman was raised as a Hasidic Jew in the Satmar sect in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y. In her new memoir, "Unorthodox," she reveals what it was like living a life totally controlled by ancient beliefs and rituals, with no individual freedoms.

Feldman was born to a mentally challenged father and a mother who abandoned her when she was just a young girl. Her grandparents, Bubby and Zeidy, raised her. Life was very controlled and regimented. She attended an allgirls religious school, spoke no English and was forbidden to read literature from the outside world. Secret trips to the library opened the independent-minded little girl to possibilities of what life could be like. At age 17, her grandparents decided she should marry, so they hired a matchmaker to find her a husband. She married that same year. Although she tried to make the marriage work, she became increasingly aware that she was living a life that she did not desire. However, she soon found herself pregnant, and gave birth to a son. At age 23, she mustered the strength to escape and give her son a chance of a life full of freedom, greater opportunities and unconditional happiness.

Readers will be engrossed at this inside peek into the Satmar sect of Hasidism, and their rituals and way of life. I only wish the author would have spent more time discussing the details of the demise of her marriage. One can only wonder how she was able to gain sole custody of her son.

American Sniper
Chris Kyle with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice
William Morrow, 2012

Chris Kyle is the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. In his new autobiography, "American Sniper," he shares his story. The adrenalinepumped memoir reads like an actionpacked thriller, detailing his years of military service, and especially his four years of combat in Iraq between 2003 and 2009.

Kyle grew up in Texas and was taught the importance of family, patriotism and self-reliance. He describes his priorities as God, family and country, and not necessarily in that order.

Kyle was fascinated with guns and hunting, and was given his first rifle before he was eight. After dropping out of college, he enlisted in the military, joining the Navy with aspirations to become a Navy Seal, especially a sniper. He was shipped off to Fallujah, then Ramadi and Sadr City. The enemy considered him so dangerous that they put a bounty on his head and nicknamed him "al-shaitan," or the devil. Officially Kyle has 160 confirmed kills, the most in the history of the U.S. Armed Forces. He says he has no regrets for the enemies he killed. What haunts him are those he couldn’t save — his buddies and comrades. For his achievements in the military, he earned two Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars with valor, and many other commendations. In 2005, he also received the Grateful Nation Award, given by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, in recognition of his service and achievements in Fallujah. will be captivated by this disturbing yet true story about Margaret Marcus, who was born in 1934 to Jewish parents in New York. At the age of 10, Marcus developed a keen interest in Muslim culture and history. By her late teens, she began to rebel against her Jewish heritage and America’s support of Israel. Concerned about her irrational behavior, her parents had her committed to a mental institution for two years, where she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

In 1961 she converted to Islam, and changed her name to Maryam Jameelah. In 1962, she moved to Pakistan to live with her mentor and adoptive father, Mawlana Abdul Ala Mawdudi, a founder of militant Islam extremism. He soon realized that he made a great mistake, and had her institutionalized in Pakistan. Upon her release, she married Muhammad Yusuf Khan and became his second wife. They had five children together.

Author Deborah Baker stumbled upon this material in the New York City Public Library. She pieced together correspondences between Maryam and her parents, and between Maryam and Mawlana Abdul Ala Mawdudi. She met and interviewed Maryam in Pakistan, and the result is an indepth look into the psyche of one of the most powerful voices and believers of modern day Islamic extremism.

The author is well versed in Islam, and was selected as a 2011 National Book Award finalist for this novel. However, readers will find it disjointed at times, and even more disappointing is the fact that at the end of the book, the author admits to re-editing some of Margaret’s letters. Nevertheless, the story of Margaret’s transformation and life will keep readers engrossed and wondering what’s real, and just how much of this is her mental illness. Readers will have to make their own judgment calls.

I Am Forbidden
Anouk Markovits
Hogarth, 2012

Spanning four generations, this saga takes readers on a gripping journey into one family’s faith and hidden secrets from the central European countryside in pre-World War II, to Paris mid-20th century and, finally, to contemporary Williamsburg, Brooklyn. "I Am Forbidden" is a story about tradition, Jewish law and undying love.

In Transylvania in 1939, five-year-old Josef Lichtenstein was the sole survivor after his family was brutally murdered by the Romanian Iron Guard. A gentile maid adopted him. Five years later, Josef rescued a young girl, Mila Heller, when her parents were killed trying to escape Europe on a Kasztner train with their rebbe. Josef helped Mila reach Zalman Stern, a religious leader in the Satmar community in Europe, who agreed to take her in and raise her, along with his own daughter, Atara.

The girls were inseparable — best friends and sisters. After the war, Zalman decides Josef should move to a Satmar community being established in America. He relocates his own family to a Satmar community in Paris. As the daughters grow up, Mila’s faith intensifies, while Atara seeks a life outside of the confines of this religious sect, eventually pushing the two girls apart for many years. Mila moves to Williamsburg, Brooklyn and marries Josef, while Atara moves to New York City and abandons her religious life.

However, after many years of childlessness, Mila takes drastic measures and decides to break holy law by going outside her marriage to become pregnant.

Years later, the repercussions from her actions may endanger her children’s and grandchildren’s lives if this dark secret is ever revealed, which ends up reuniting the long lost sisters after nearly a decade.

This brilliant debut novel by Anouk Markovits will capture the reader’s attention from beginning to end. Her prose and storytelling is exquisitely crafted, carrying reader’s imaginations throughout the novel to its gripping ending.

The Convert
Deborah Baker
Graywolf Press, 2011

Readers will be captivated by this disturbing yet true story about Margaret Marcus, who was born in 1934 to Jewish parents in New York. At the age of 10, Marcus developed a keen interest in Muslim culture and history. By her late teens, she began to rebel against her Jewish heritage and America’s support of Israel. Concerned about her irrational behavior, her parents had her committed to a mental institution for two years, where she was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

In 1961 she converted to Islam, and changed her name to Maryam Jameelah. In 1962, she moved to Pakistan to live with her mentor and adoptive father, Mawlana Abdul Ala Mawdudi, a founder of militant Islam extremism. He soon realized that he made a great mistake, and had her institutionalized in Pakistan. Upon her release, she married Muhammad Yusuf Khan and became his second wife. They had five children together.

Author Deborah Baker stumbled upon this material in the New York City Public Library. She pieced together correspondences between Maryam and her parents, and between Maryam and Mawlana Abdul Ala Mawdudi. She met and interviewed Maryam in Pakistan, and the result is an indepth look into the psyche of one of the most powerful voices and believers of modern day Islamic extremism.

The author is well versed in Islam, and was selected as a 2011 National Book Award finalist for this novel. However, readers will find it disjointed at times, and even more disappointing is the fact that at the end of the book, the author admits to re-editing some of Margaret’s letters. Nevertheless, the story of Margaret’s transformation and life will keep readers engrossed and wondering what’s real, and just how much of this is her mental illness. Readers will have to make their own judgment calls.

Last modified on Thursday, December 20, 2012 - 18:36

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