Author’s ultra-religious upbringing frames family issues in frank memoir
TELL-ALL memoirs are, by their very nature, difficult to read. While there’s some pleasure to be had from learning about an individual overcoming a difficult challenge or childhood, that pleasure is usually laced with embarrassment and discomfort for the family and community being skewered in the process. This is very much the case with Leah Vincent’s Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood. Although Vincent’s memoir is weirdly engaging and hard to put down, it’s also painful to read. The pages are filled with the author’s stories of self-hate, self-damage, terrible loneliness and frightening and unfulfilling relationships. They also are impacted by a great deal of unresolved anger, unkindness and unforgiveness directed at her family, the Kaplans of Pittsburgh. The Kaplans are Yeshivish, an ultraorthodox branch of Judaism committed to the centrality of the yeshivas, or rabbinical schools, and to the letter of Jewish law. Yeshivish Jews raise their sons to become scholars and rabbis and their daughters to be mothers and homemakers. Most girls in Vincent’s community are matched and married by the time they are 18. Vincent describes her early life as mostly unexceptional. Born in 1982, she was a middle child among 11 siblings who adored her father and did well in school. By the time she reached her early teens, however, Vincent began asking questions, mostly to herself but occasionally aloud. She wondered why Yeshivish girls could not go to college, why the laws of modesty were so restrictive and why sons were automatically considered more worthy than daughters. Frustrated and angered by her questions and behaviour, Vincent’s parents sent her to religious seminaries in England and then Israel, finally abandoning her in a Brooklyn apartment at the age of 17. For a long time, in spite of her parents’ callous mistreatment, Vincent still hoped for their acceptance, and still clings to her belief in God and many of the traditions in which she was raised. Gradually, however, she begins to move further and further away from family and faith. She begins to talk to boys, she stops dressing modestly, she takes a lover, she goes out dancing, and she stops eating strictly kosher. She also enrols in college even though, “for Yeshivish Jews, higher education was forbidden.” When, remarkably, she is accepted into grad school at Harvard, Vincent recalls, “My mother had threatened to have me locked up, when, as a teenager, I had told her that I wanted to go to college. Lock me up as if I were a broken, wild animal, good for nothing.” Vincent’s memoir and her journey to writing it will of course be compared to Debra Feldman’s 2012 book Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots. Like Feldman, Vincent felt stifled enough and angry enough to escape her ultra-orthodox upbringing, her family and everything that was familiar. Again, like Feldman, she writes about that escape with complete honesty and audacity, but with too little empathy and humility as well.
Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.
Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox