The ProsenPeople

The Answer Is the Question

Friday, September 18, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Leah Lax wrote about Gloria Steinem named her book. The author of Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home, she has been blogging here all week as a Visiting Scribe on The ProsenPeople.

I used to teach young children in a Hasidic school. I wasn’t trained for it—I was recruited, but it was one of the only professional avenues open to me. I was a Hasidic woman back then, married, with a wig on my head, and children of my own. I learned to teach on the job, and poured every ounce of perception, creativity, planning, structure, and love that I could into my students.

I found the teaching process wondrous. My classroom was a magical place that kept the chaotic world away from my charges, a reliable, stimulating, safe place where confusion or doubt never entered, where God was always a source of clarity. In my classroom, it was perfectly conceivable that a snake could stand on hind legs and mislead Eve, that Moses could lift his rod to split a sea and birth our nation, that God’s voice could thunder from a mountaintop and form a people so awed they remained forever loyal. We translated Genesis together from the Hebrew, letter by letter, word by word, using songs and illustrations and patient teasing apart of the logic of that ancient language until I saw the light go on in a child’s eyes. “Think!” I would say. “Think!”

Then I handed out prizes for correct answers. Not once during those years did I imagine there might be more than one correct response. Never did I think to reward the creative thinking and intellectual independence that might have led to a “wrong” answer. Not once did I ever tell my students, “Ask!” or “Question!” or “Wonder!”

It’s not that I didn’t understand the difference between education and indoctrination. I did. But I was proud of my role as indoctrinator, molding minds in just the right way, forming a new generation of staunch little Hasidim, soldiers in the Rebbe’s Army of God.

We sang a lot. Song was a perfect mnemonic for the great deal of memorization I expected of them. I put prayers, vocabulary, rules, and Hebrew lists—such as Hebrew names of days, and months, the parshiot (weekly portions) in each book of the Torah, the steps in the Passover seder—to song. I knew that when the kids went home, they would sing these songs to themselves as they played, and I wanted the parents to hear and feel proud of how their children were being filled with the knowledge and structure of our complicated, prescribed lives.

There are sins, the Talmud tells us, for which one cannot atone, for example, leading others to sin. I have trained hundreds to squelch their budding questions, to believe that education is indoctrination, to suspend disbelief and devote themselves to rote. I have taught that getting an education means learning to obey and think the right thoughts. I never once asked my students to consider studying anything that expressed dissent or a worldview other than our own.

I thought a lot about those long ago teaching years while reading fellow JBC author Linda K. Wertheimer’s Faith Ed. I thought about them even more when Linda recently sent me an article from Duke University’s Chronicle quoting several incoming students who had refused to read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, the assigned summer reading for Duke’s incoming class, saying that engaging with a lesbian memoir so would compromise their religious beliefs. I hear these students’ high-minded sentiments as a little forced, like they’re trying to be good. After all, they’re young, not even freshmen yet, haven’t yet gotten away from their parents or even begun to immerse themselves in university studies. They are full of their families’ religious teachings. But, lucky them, unlike my little Hasidic charges, their parents sent them away from home to a secular university.

In Amber Humphrey’s response to the Fun Home phenomenon, she seemed to be talking directly to those students: “Learning means we attempt to understand—it doesn’t mean we have to like everything we’re exposed to.” She goes on to sketch out her ideal liberal arts education, one that imparts through study the vicarious experience of a broad range of philosophies, societies, and individual stories in order to understand and come to respect all of humanity, stretching minds in the process. But her article was entitled, College Students Refusing to Read a Lesbian Memoir Don’t Deserve College. Wait a minute, I thought. Those are the very students that need college.

I imagined getting to assemble my students of long ago and talk to them as she seemed to be doing, and re-set the course of their studies, a glorious second chance. I would caution them to be wary of anything called “education” that attempts to close their minds. Given how I once caught their hearts with songs, I would tell them to listen to all kinds of music, especially music without words. I would say, “Ask!” and “Question!” and “Wonder!”

So here’s the question that I want to put out on this Jewish forum: in our day schools and religious schools where there is not even a vestige of separation of Church and State, how can we convey beliefs, ritual, communal standards, yet educate and not indoctrinate? How do you balance the dictates of religion with the educator’s job of opening minds—especially in the guise of religion, the kindest of people can teeter toward dictatorship?

These days, I wake every morning amazed to find myself with a great home, a funny dog, and a loving wife, ever grateful for second chances. Like my old classroom, our home together is also a magical place that nurtures our beliefs, also a hedge against a chaotic world. But this is true in spite of our porous walls that admit world events and all kinds of people and beliefs, and in spite of the acknowledgement within those walls that we live unanswerable questions, and then we die. I believe the best-lived lives belong to people who learned to embrace those questions early on.

Leah Lax is the author of Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home, now available for purchase.

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Gloria Steinem Named My Memoir

Wednesday, September 16, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Leah Lax wrote about the loneliness of leaving Hasidut and coping with coming home to the world of her childhood. She is blogging here all week as a Visiting Scribe on The ProsenPeople.

It happened again. Someone “friended” me and her profile picture was of a smiling woman in hijab. Since my book Uncovered is about leaving the Hasidim, this wasn’t a common experience. I was pleased: I see my memoir as feminist, as an act of solidarity with covered women everywhere.

I didn’t always see it that way.

Back in 2010, I went to Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers on Whidby Island. We were each given a small cabin in the woods big enough for one person. I had just sent off a final draft of my memoir to my agent and was eager to delve into my new novel.

I saw no one else that first day, needed no one else. I hung up clothes and set up my writing space, ready to go to work. But first, a quick email check—and there was my agent’s name in the inbox.

She said she felt the latest rewrite was a mistake; it was slow and tinged with self-pity. She rejected it.

I paced the next few hours. All of my plans lay in shreds on the floor.

I was the last to arrive to dinner at the farmhouse that evening. I wasn’t exactly in the best frame of mind to meet the people who were to be my companions over the coming month. The other six were already around the table, with one seat left. I took it, and sat down next to Gloria Steinem.

It’s an unwritten rule at such retreats to stay low-key about anyone’s achievements. A retreat is private space, workspace, carefully blessedly separate from out there. I’d been twice to Yaddo, where there were always a few major figures at dinner sprinkled among us wannabes. But this was Gloria Steinem.

Table conversation was already underway. We were writers of screenplays, stage productions, libretti, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. We were white, black, Chinese, Japanese-American, and of a variety of faiths—all this among only seven of us.

In the same way that she influenced the national conversation, Gloria’s very presence infused ours with social consciousness. I listened, shy, trying to take it all in. But somewhere along the way, a beam of light struck, a moment of clarity like you have only a few times in your life.

I was raised a Texas Jewish girl, grandchild of immigrants, child of liberals. I joined the Hasidim at sixteen in 1972, just when the fight to ratify the ERA was under way and the Women’s Political Caucus convention was about to take place in Houston. I spent the next thirty years living as if the roiling, creative, politically charged world of my childhood was a distant, two-dimensional scene on the other side of a veil.

I looked at Gloria and thought, I missed an era. I thought, I’ve been trying to write a feminist memoir when I don’t have the language.

After dinner, I went back to my cabin and faced starting the memoir over again. As I turned to that first page, I was deeply aware of the other women working in their cabins around mine, their lights glowing through the night forest. An owl glided past, then rose above my sight. I thought of how deeply I’d been affected by social and political events when I was young. I thought about the position of women in American society and among the Hasidim and how it had shaped my story.

I had many conversations with Gloria that month. We took long walks. She recommended books—among them the work of Carolyn Heilbrun, a slim volume I will always associate with the particular light filtered through trees at dusk in the woods.

In that tiny Hedgebrook setting, I began to feel deeply connected to the women all over the world who are required by religion to cover themselves. One night at dinner Gloria said, “I thought of a title for your book.” Uncovered. Now her words are on the cover: “A story that millions will recognize, told with courage, spirit, and honesty.”

Uncovered is making its way into the world, but this part of how it came to be is most essential to where I am now. I have dedicated the book “to my covered sisters everywhere.” I welcome that conversation. Perhaps it will come.

Leah Lax is the author of Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home, now available for purchase.

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Coping with Coming Home

Monday, September 14, 2015 | Permalink

Leah Lax joined the Hasidic community when she was sixteen years old, leaving thirty years later and coming out as a lesbian. She shares her experience in her memoir, Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home, and in a series of posts here on The ProsenPeople as this week’s Visiting Scribe.

Friends kept sending me the links, her smiling face in my inbox again and again: stories about Faigy Mayer, who killed herself jumping off a New York building. I googled “ex-Hasidic,” not exactly a common term, and pulled up thousands of news sites around the world. Since I’m also ex-Hasidic, this seemed surreal.

I live in Texas. Mayer was from New Square, the same isolated hardcore Hasidic town that is the setting for Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return. Both she and Deen were affiliated with Footsteps, a New York City organization that helps ex-Orthodox people adjust to secular society. Mayer and Deen were friends.

After she left them, Mayer suffered from the loss of family and friends. Mayer’s family and community shunned her; her mother even refused to share baby pictures. When she died, her family insisted she had been “bipolar and schizophrenic” and these allegations were all over the news. I wondered why a claim by people who had treated her so cruelly was given such credence. I knew that some Hasidic communities foist a label of mental illness on rebels, going as far as having them committed, hospitalized, and heavily medicated.

It turns out, this was done to Faigy Mayer as well.

Soon, Mayer blended in my mind with Sandra Bland, who died the same week not far from my Houston home. Both were pushed into apparent suicide by entrenched bigotry and cruelty.

It seemed that the press’s interest in both victims fizzled out after their past struggles with depression were revealed, as if their deaths were solved with this revelation of personal struggles. The weakness, the weak link, had been revealed. To me, it all sounded too much like the Blame the Victim/She Had It Coming stuff of old rape cases that nicely take the focus off the perpetrators, exonerating them by default. I wondered if the tone of the news coverage would have been different if they had been men.

In an op-ed for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Shulem Deen listed eight other friends who taken their own lives. “The journey away from ultra-Orthodoxy is so fraught that some simply don’t make it,” he said.

Which is where I paused and woke up from my obsession with Faigy Miller.

It’s a long story, the story of my leaving. I have to say here that group identity for Hasidim is a huge part of overall identity. Loneliness—the lack of a group that reflects your self—is particularly disorienting for us. Even though, because I was a closeted lesbian, I’d never really belonged, when the group was gone for me, I wasn’t sure any more that “I” was still there. Who was that? I was forty-five before I met another ex-Hasid, even older before I met another gay ex-Hasid.

A scene haunts me from that time. I was in a therapist’s office. My pain was so palpable it seemed to thicken the air, my language as fragmented as my life. The room was dim and spare. She was like a kind steady shadow. “I wouldn’t, I don’t think,” I told her, “but, I understand why people…do. It seems so possible, so logical, sometimes.” Suicide.

When I left the Hasidim after joining at the age of sixteen, in all that time I’d never held a remote control, didn’t know cable channels or the Internet, or how to figure a tip in a restaurant. I didn’t understand thirty years’ worth of cultural and historical references around me. But I still had a great satisfying sense of having come home, a thrilling, joyful second chance. I floundered at first, but held onto memories of having once been a confident teen at home in this society.

That’s the difference, why I’m okay, because I felt I’d come home. Most ex-Hasidim are forever in exile.

One of the first things I did when I decided to leave was call my mother. “Mom,” I said. “I’m leaving Levi, and the Hasidim, and taking off the wig. And Mom, I’m a lesbian.” There was a pause. Then she said, “Oh my God, you’re coming home.”

Leah Lax’s work has been published in Dame, Lilith, Moment, and Salon. Her memoir, Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home, is now available for purchase.

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