Sunday, May 24, 2015


I love books about religious groups, whether it's novels about cults or memoirs of nuns.  Mennonites, the Amish, Mormons (mainstream and fundamentalist), Orthodox Jews.  Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation after My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood, by Leah Vincent, clearly fits in here, and it isn't the first "leaving Judaism" memoir that I've read.

Leah Vincent was the favorite daughter of a Yeshivish rabbi in Pittsburg.  Yeshivish was not something I had heard of, but apparently it fits between Hasidic and Modern Orthodox in the triumverate of conservative Judaism.  Leah grew up with ten brothers and sisters and knew that she would go to seminary for a year after high school before getting married.

But there were places where should couldn't quite make herself fit, and the small rebellions brought such oppressive consequences that the rebellions began growing larger, until her family was estranged and Leah was living on her own in New York, neither exactly a good Orthodox Jew nor a secular woman.

It's a pretty familiar story, if it's the kind of book that you read.  The interesting angle here is the sense of solitude, and the importance of sex in Leah's life.  You get the strong feeling that, if she had been given the smallest chance, Leah would have ended up exacgtly where her family wanted and expected her to be--married to a good Yeshivish man, mother to a dozen children.  But instead, her first small, curious rebellions--exchanging letters with the brother of a friend, buying a clingy, V-neck sweater--were met with such ruthless cutting off that she had no room to try to repair things.  She's left as a person with no preparation for the real world, who must navigate it anyway.  The pitfalls of this are one of the most interesting parts here.

The role that sex plays in Leah's transition is also unusual, and fascinating.  I think the main thing is that it seems more intensely personal than a lot of other memoirs that I've read, although that's probably me misinterpreting personal and simply private.  Anyway, from the first things that cause her trouble--wanting to talk to a boy, wanting him to like her--to the ways she finally tries to connect with people (men) when she's on her own, so much of her experience with the secular world revolves around sex.

I find this interesting for a few reasons.  First, it seems to relate to how a lot of people coming from sheltered environments first interact with the wider world; since everything is "evil," there's no sense of what's really risky, and so they don't fully understand that watching an R rated movie is fundamentally different from doing dangerous amounts of drugs.  This might be an exaggeration, but the point is that, without the cultural calibration that comes from years of living in the world, it's hard to know what choices are healthy ones.

So, this brings me to my biggest criticism of this book, which is the unexamined nature of a lot of the things she thought at the time.  In the afterword, the author talks about how, in writing the book, she's explicitly trying to relate things through the eyes of the girl she was, how that girl saw things.  I appreciated that note, because my reaction would have been worse if she hadn't acknowledged this.  There are some things she does that are dangerous or morally wrong, and within the story she doesn't really acknowledge that at all.

But even with this caveat, I feel like the book didn't do a good job with some of this.  For example, when she was living on her own in New York for the first time, some of her only human contact came from hanging around in basketball parks, watching pickup games.  She eventually becomes a regular and makes friends, becomes involved with the men she meets there.  Now, she's explained how the culture she grew up in was very racist, and in befriending these men, she's clearly stepping outside her comfort zone.  But there is a very uncomfortably racist overtone to this whole section.  The sleaziness of the way she was used by these boyfriends is played up, without getting any sense of even one of these men (the ones she slept with or the ones she didn't) as real people.  They were "black guys" she was spending time with.

There are other things--an affair with a married man, the fact that she has virtually no female presence in her life at any point--that are presented in such a matter of fact way that it's awkward to read them.  The book is clearly a memoir, told from a later time, so the sense is that of remembering the events with Leah, not of living them firsthand.  This is fine, except that it makes the absence of any kind of critical eye, any kind of analysis that comes with distance, all the more distinctive.  The author doesn't criticize the narrator's perceptions, but neither do we live so intimately in the narrator's mind that these perceptions seem right, nor do we see the narrator go through any process of growth wherein she realizes that hey, maybe all these other people are people, too.

This disconnect was the main flaw, but it really brought the book down for me.  While the account was intimate and raw, it was an account of a sheltered young girl going through a lot of emotional upheaval, and by keeping us locked in her perceptions, the book prevented a lot of insight it could have offered in the process of integrating into mainstream culture, or of finding yourself after a oppression and estrangement.

On the spectrum of insular community books, I would probably give this a good 3.5 stars.  It was worth reading, and it was a good account, but it left me wanting to know more about what now-Leah thought of the experiences of then-Leah.  With that, this could have been an amazing book.

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