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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When Leah Lax was asked to write an opera to celebrate local immigrants, she sought out people willing to tell her about their journeys to the United States and listened for a year. The result was transformative. She found the true context for her Jewish family story. It was if she had discovered America; found its great, beating heart. She found home. Lax has had a dual career as an author and as a librettist. Her first book — now an opera by composer Lori Laitman — was Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home, the first gay memoir to come out of the Jewish ultra-Orthodox world.