The ProsenPeople

Interview: Leah Vincent

Tuesday, February 25, 2014 | Permalink

In partnership with JewSchool, JBC 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, JBC and Leah discuss writing, the Haredi world, and her relationship with her parents.

JBC Staff: 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 bad 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 for space that one needs to live and that one has to do on one’s own.

JBC Staff: 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.

JBC Staff: 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 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 about the Hasidic world, which I know is different, but the Yeshivish world, twenty years ago, was a lot more 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. But part of it 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 thirty years ago as it exists now. 

JBC Staff: 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 it enough 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.

JBC Staff: 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 could leave easily, then people could say that I should lower the temperature on some of my other issues.

JBC Staff: 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 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.

JBC Staff: 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 to 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 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.

It’s unlikely.

Read more from Leah Vincent here.


A Jewish Atheist’s Prayer

Thursday, January 16, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Leah Vincent wrote about leaving the ultra-Orthodox community and the backlash that came when she decided to talk about her decision publicly. Her memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood, will be published by Nan A. Talese on January 21st. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

When I was little, I talked to God constantly. There were prayers for waking up, for the morning, for the afternoon, before eating, after eating, after using the bathroom, on hearing thunder, on seeing lightning, on a long trip, on wearing new clothing, on going to bed. These were the required Hebrew prayers, which I augmented with personal updates in silent English, checking in with God like a modern kid sends texts: a staccato barrage of shorthand messages bracketing every emotion and event.

When I left ultra-Orthodoxy as a teenager, I brought God with me on my journey, a silent and watchful companion in those turbulent years. Even as I tried cheeseburgers and kissing boys, I could still drench the pages of my prayer book with tears. But eventually, about eight years ago, when I read enough science to squash the last of the mystical stories I had been raised on, my growing skepticism evolved into a firm comfort with Atheism and I stopped talking to God.

I went to yoga, the other day. My mind wandered down my to-do list as I planted my legs in the postures for Warrior One, Two and Three. After a sweaty hour, as we lowered to corpse pose to end the class, I glanced at the woman next to me. Her shorts had ridden up, revealing a series of scabby scars on her thigh. I lay back with my palms up, eyes closed and stinging with tears.

Maybe it was the yoga, unfolding the pieces of my body, unhinging the stuck places, opening my heart, but to my surprise, I found myself talking to God in my head. Screaming at him.

“Where were you? Where were you, God?”

My throat closed as I tried to swallow my sobs.

I knew the scars that the woman beside me carried. As a teenager, I had taken a razor to my arm. Releasing blood gave me relief from the terror and confusion I felt after leaving my religious family and finding myself alone in the world. My cutting has long healed to Braille, but the woman’s fresh wounds suddenly brought me back to that time in my life that now seems so long ago.

“Where were you God? Why didn’t you save me from myself, from everyone, from everything?”

The anger piled on top of my supine body, a mountain of rocky fury hovering over me. It felt real, three-dimensional, my forgotten emotions solidifying above me as I railed at God.

There was no answer. But suddenly, I saw myself, a little naked creature, emerging from a door in the anger, walking out, away from it, onto a vast lunar plain. My shoulders sank into the yoga mat, as I felt the relief of being free from all of that bitterness. It was so simple, in this strange little vision I had. I just walked away from the anger and was free.

“Roll up to sit,” the yoga teacher instructed us, and my vision faded. But a sense of lightness remained, along with a strange aftertaste from having struck up a conversation with someone who no longer existed.

There is no God for me, in my understanding of the world now, but perhaps, I mused, as I rolled up my mat, there is still some place for me to send my hopes and fears. I can’t deliver my words to a Divine listener, but maybe there is still relief in sending my messages out to a psychic space beyond myself, in giving myself permission to pray, even, as an atheist.

Leah Vincent is a writer and activist. The first person in her family to go to college, she went on to earn a master’s in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School. In addition to writing for various publications, including The Huffington Post and The Jewish Daily Forward, she is an advocate for reform within ultra-Orthodoxy and for the empowerment of former ultra-Orthodox Jews seeking a self-determined life. She works with Footsteps, the only organization in the United States supporting formerly ultra-Orthodox individuals. Read more about her and her memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood, here: www.leahvincent.com.

The Ultra-Orthodox Backlash

Tuesday, January 14, 2014 | Permalink

Leah Vincent is a writer and activist. In addition to writing for various publications, including The Huffington Post and The Jewish Daily Forward, she is an advocate for reform within ultra-Orthodoxy and for the empowerment of former ultra-Orthodox Jews seeking a self-determined life. Her memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood, will be published by Nan A. Talese on January 21st. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

When a former ultra-Orthodox Jew publicly reveals her story, she often faces ferocious attacks from her community of origin who will claim that she is “crazy” and a liar. As a former ultra-Orthodox writer and activist, I’ve experienced some of this backlash on blogs and online chatrooms, but I received my most public dose of it when I appeared on Katie Couric’s talk show last spring to share a bit about my life and promote the work of Footsteps, an organization that empowers former ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The Katie producer called me the day before the taping, frantic. She had contacted my father for a counter-statement to my recounting of my parents’ abandonment and the difficult years I went through after that. “It is clear to us,” my father’s statement said, “that she (Leah) does not (or perhaps is not always able to) separate her imaginings from the facts. The allegations contained in your email are simply false, every single one … Come what may, we will continue to love her always.” (His love, of course, moving him to issue this statement, but not to contacting me after the birth of my child two years ago, or since.)

The producer was afraid that perhaps, despite my extensive prep with her, I was, in fact, a delusional liar. I directed her to my brother, who confirmed my account and shared the story of his own, similar, experiences.

Many of my friends who leave ultra-Orthodoxy have faced this type of personal attack from family, former friends, former rabbis, and internet trolls. With the publication of my memoir, I expect a fresh and heated batch of claims that I am crazy and that I am a liar. There is a grain of truth in these accusations. If “crazy” means experiences with psychologists and psychiatrists, I have, as my memoir recounts, spent time on a psych ward. I don’t lie, in my memoir, but I do, as I note in the book, work within the conventions of the genre. My book is not a multi-volume investigative journalism essay on my entire existence; it explores one narrative thread from a vibrant life. As I state in the opening pages, “[s]ome events have been compressed or rearranged in time to more concisely convey my experience” and “[n]ames and identifying details have been altered.”

I’m weary of the insults that will come, but more than that, I am bitterly disappointed by this de facto reaction. It’s a letdown to see that the community that I cherished for so long seems too often to have no more substantial engagement with the concerns of those of us who chose to leave beyond ad hominem attacks.

The community I knew was a community that prided itself both on deep immersion in complex philosophical studies and generous investment in charity and support. The community that I grew up in was a community that strived to follow a Godly path, that constantly issued exhortations to personal improvement, that engaged in intense recruitment of outsiders to what they claimed was a more elevated life. I would expect more depth, more compassion, more pensiveness, in their engagement with these issues. The cognitive dissonance is unsettling.

My hope for my memoir, and others that will surely be coming in the next few years, is that the ultra-Orthodox community will reject the tired script of “you’re crazy, you’re a liar” and instead enter the conversation with valuable ideas about how to make the ultra-Orthodox community more tolerant of those who choose a self-determined life and more embracing of personal expression. Both for my peers and for those I left behind.

Leah Vincent works with Footsteps, the only organization in the United States supporting formerly ultra-Orthodox individuals. Read more about her and her memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood, here: www.leahvincent.com.