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.

Relat­ed Content:

Leah Lax (MFA Cre­ative Writ­ing) is an author and libret­tist. Her first book was the award-win­ning Uncov­ered. Not From Here fol­lows her jour­ney back into soci­ety through lis­ten­ing to new immi­grants tell their sto­ries. In the process, she also uncov­ers the sto­ries of her Jew­ish grand­par­ents, and begins to under­stand who she is now as a Jew and an American.