In partnership with JewSchool, Sam Shuman sat down with Leah Vincent to discuss her recently published memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin & Salvation After My Ultra Orthodox Girlhood (Nan A. Talese). Below, Sam and Leah discuss writing, the Haredi world, and her relationship with her parents.
Sam Shuman: I’m curious about your habits of writing. Where do you write? When do you write? Do you have specific habits around the craft?
Leah Vincent: No. And I feel very guilty about this. I feel like I need to be more disciplined. That’s my constant resolution—to get more disciplined about it. I have a toddler, so my writing revolves around whatever time the babysitter is there and [whether] I don’t have other pressing things. I write on the couch, or chair, on my bed with my laptop and just type frantically. I’m a really big believer in the shitty first drafts. So I’m just always trying to just push myself to write whenever it comes and not judge it. And come back to it. And rework it and rework it and rework it.
I would love to be able to say, “I sit down in my office from 9 AM to 5 PM.” That does not happen at all: of course, every time I come to a difficult scene, I’m checking on Facebook every ten seconds. Something on Twitter has become very, very important instantly. I know that I should shut off the internet, but I don’t. It’s a very organic, meandering engagement. If I could go to an office everyday, doing something like being a pediatrician, I’d have the time for my work. But because I’m a writer, somehow I have to fight a little bit harder to be taken seriously—by myself maybe more than anybody else. I’m allowed to say, “I’m not taking everything else. I’m just writing for two hours.” There’s this constant pushing of the space that one needs to live and that one has to do on one’s own.
SS: Do you see your work as a break or a continuation of an older genre of literature—something like the Autobiography of Solomon Maimon or the treatises of that other rabble rouser, Baruch Spinoza?
LV: I definitely think we have a claim to the Haskalah (Enlightenment). Before OTD [“Off the Derech”—leaving Orthodoxy] became as popular as it was two, three years ago, I was saying we have to call ourselves Maskilim (“enlightened”), not because we’re identical to the original Maskilim, but because we carry some of their spirit forward and it’s important for us to realize that we have a lineage; that we’re not coming out of nowhere. It’s not, obviously, an unbroken chain: the themes are very different—the Maskilim are, for the most part, much more intellectual than my book is. But I’m proud to claim them. I don’t know how they would feel about being claimed, but I’m proud to claim them—and I think we should. I do think that, especially when you’ve been rejected—as some of us have, by everyone we knew and cared about—to claim kinship with people who are dead, to be able to look out onto a much wider world, and say, “Listen, the immediate world has rejected me, but I’m going to find family or intellectual counterparts or people I can to connect to,” is hugely powerful. I wouldn’t want to deny myself or other people who find comfort and confidence and ideas and inspiration from that.
SS: People have been presumably going "off the derech" since the legal bricklayers paved the path. But leaving the Haredi world is no longer enough—there’s a drive now to change it, whether it be through writing, protests, billboards, or non-profits. Having spoken to people who went off the derech over twenty to twenty-five years ago, they’ve noticed that change, too. How do you account for this change? Why do you think that there’s been a cultural shift now?
LV: I think that context is important. I really firmly believe the Ultra-Orthodox community did not exist in its current incarnation a hundred years ago and even fifty years ago. And even in my lifetime (I’m thirty-two) I’ve seen a dramatic change in the Ultra-Orthodox community. I can’t speak as authoritatively to the Hasidic world, which I know is different, but the Yeshivish world, twenty years ago, was a lot more was open to influences and realities of the outside world than it is today—so you could exist in it without feeling like you were existing in something that was caged or enclosed in the way it is now. The more the Haredi community tightens its grip, the more you’re going to have a backlash because the more you need to have a backlash.
The OTD community really only formed in the way it has in the past three years, really—five years, maybe. Part of that is about the internet. A huge part of that is about the internet. But part of that is that there’s something to really talk about. I respect the right of people to live in many different ways. I don’t have a fundamental problem, a foundational problem, with Yeshivish life; I have a problem with certain parts of it that have become worse and worse and worse now. So now there’s something to talk about. We’re becoming activists because of what we see and what we feel we have an obligation to change. I don’t think that it existed in the same extreme way now as it existed thirty years ago.
SS: Your book is so much about the body and the bodily—contamination, purity, modesty, just to name a few. When your mother prohibited you from eating on the plates when you returned home, didn’t it function as a metaphor, too? Or do you think the OTD body, in your case, was understood in strictly literal terms—as a "real" site of contamination?
LV: I think what you’re asking is: was my mother literally thinking I’m going to spread disease? So I don’t know. There’s no way of knowing; only my mother knows. I thought, at the time, that she did not understand how sexually transmitted diseases could work—or whatever she thought I had—and that she thought I could literally somehow pass this thing on. When I look back that seems kind of ridiculous. It seems that she’s more likely sending me a message and a message to the other children that I am the Other. But I do remember at the time being confused myself. I was struggling to put together pieces and knowledge about the world.
I don’t underline enough it in the book, but I think a lot of my parents’ actions, the message I always got was: they’re protecting their other children. There definitely is this contamination anxiety. People say, “How could your parents do this to you?” I don’t think that my parents were doing this to me: I think they were being good parents to all the other kids they had in the family.
SS: The language of saving is curious when talking about Haredim. Most state powers don’t have vested interests in "liberating" Haredi women by starting wars, but even so, how do you strike that balance—the fine line between refusing apologetics for the ways that Haredi women’s bodies are disciplined, their choices are made, and their education administered, while at the same time resisting that secular urge to "liberate" them, to paint them as people robbed of agency and choice?
LV: This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately—and trying to figure out how to express it. I wish I had more sophisticated academic training to be able to express it better than I will.
Progressives are too nice. I resent this idea of progressives’ respect for extremism—to the detriment of some people. There is a hierarchy of moral or ethical rights, and a community does not get the right to self-autonomy until it has fulfilled the right of allowing people to leave. Until the Haredi world lets people leave, I’m going to criticize the fact that they don’t let people leave and I’m going to criticize them on the two other major issues which I care most about: the role and rights of women and the safety of children. If people can leave easily, then people could say that I should lower the temperature on some of my other issues.
SS: You mention in the book that your grandfather marched with black preachers in the 1960s and that "your father had called his own father 'Dad.'" How does this collective forgetting occur?
LV: I don’t know if it’s a collective forgetting as much as a collective wishful thinking. I think that after a trauma like the Holocaust, whatever grows in that ground is going to be warped. I think it’s inevitable.
After the Holocaust, we saw this springing up of the Yeshivish community, which, fueled by that great intensity and trauma, was able to create this myth that they had existed forever. And forget that this is not the case. And forget that many members, like my father, came from much more progressive backgrounds—and Orthodox Judaism in the 1960s looked like nothing like Orthodox Judaism in the 1990s. And nobody was willing to admit that. And I think that this terrible trauma is really responsible for so much of this—and I think it’s played out in different Jewish communities in different ways. And this is the way that it played out in the Yeshivish community.
SS: You begin the memoir by inscribing your father into the past, despite the fact that he’s still alive: "my father, Rabbi Shaul Kaplan, was a short, stiff-shouldered man”—not is. Is he dead to you?"
LV: He’s not dead to me as a person; he’s still not dead to me as a father. It would be hard to talk about him in the present tense, although I do sometimes. It’s not just a story about the past: he is a person who is alive today, and I engage with him today. But I don’t have a relationship with him anymore, so in a way the relationship is dead and the person I have to relate is not the person walking on the earth today, but the person who existed in the past.
I often call myself a “zombie orphan.” It’s a special kind of orphanhood where your parents are alive, but they treat you like you’re dead. And it comes with its own rules. Like zombies, they pop up into life and you think they’re going to be there for you and then they disappoint you by going for your guts. It’s a very strange state to be in—where you never get to visit somebody’s grave and cry for them. Instead, you have cold distance, and then sometimes you get engaged again, which is terrifying. To have my father issue a statement that he still loves me, while calling me a liar or whatever else he said to Katie Couric and to Tablet, when he didn’t call me after my baby was born...
It’s a zombie orphanhood, where you kind of have this very weird and painful and strange relationship. I’ve never been able to give up hope that we can reconcile because I know he’s still alive and because we have had this weird, strange contact. I can’t give up. And that hope has been incredibly damaging to me. But I hold on to it, that one day, somehow, this will all be cleaned up, and he’ll find a way that I can have a father again.
Read more from Leah Vincent here.
Sam Shuman is an ethnographer and cultural theorist with ties to queer, activist, and ex-Hasidic cultures in New York City. A graduate of Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, Sam was the recipient of the Columbia Dean's Prize in Anthropology for his fieldwork around the gravesite of Rebbe Nachman in Uman, Ukraine. His doctoral work centers around precarity, labor, and the collapse of the Hasidic diamond industry in Antwerp.