Au­thor’s ul­tra-re­li­gious up­bring­ing frames fam­ily is­sues in frank mem­oir

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Sharon Chisvin

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


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