Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Leah Lax talks about UNCOVERED, the first ever memoir about a gay woman entering and then leaving the Hassidic community.

My grandfather was an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. My mother stopped believing in God and religion when he died suddenly, (I was only two), but she never stopped telling me the stories of the community in her house, the love, the sense of belonging brought her. Because I grew up in the only Jewish family in a Christian neighborhood (Oh yes, kids came up and thrust their hands into my thicket of curly hair wanting to find my horns. I had high school friends call me crying to tell me that their parents did not want them associating with a Jew.) I grew up not religious, but still yearning to feel that I belonged somewhere. When I moved to NYC, I became fascinated with the Hasidim I would see, and with their culture. Although I didn’t want to be part of a culture that seemed to me to be very unkind to women, LGBTQ, and repressive, I admit I was jealous of the tight community.

I knew I wanted to write about this, in small part, in my next novel, but small or not, I wanted to get my facts right, so I looked for women who had left their community and the first and most important question I asked was, “What do you miss about your community?” There was, of course, plenty not to miss. Many had lost children or family to the community. But just about everyone I interviewed said, yes, as a child, there was this feeling of welcome, of belonging. And the person I interviewed who helped me so, so much, is Leah Lax, who wrote the astonishing UNCOVERED the first memoir about a gay woman leaving the Hasidic fold—and what is more amazing, she left her liberal and secular home to become a Hasidic Jew. It is one of my favorite books, and Leah has become one of my favorite people.

Leah Lax has written award-winning fiction and non-fiction as well as an opera for Houston Grand Opera that was reviewed in the NYTimes and broadcast on NPR. Her work has appeared in many places, including Salon, Dame, Lilith, jewishfiction.net, and in anthologies by Seal Press and North Atlantic. She is the recipient of the Writers’ League of Texas Discovery Award, Pirate’s Alley/PEN Faulkner (Finalist), and the May Sarton Award.  It was also a New YorkYork Library Pick, and  a Redbook and Good Housekeeping Best of the Year.

Coming in March from SUNY Press, is OFF THE DERECH, with 30 pages about Leah musing about gender roles and notions of gender in the Hasidic Community, plus an excerpt from UNCOVERED.

I cannot thank you enough, Leah, for talking to me, so I would get the details in my novel right, and for this extraordinary memoir, and for friendship, too.

What is so fascinating to me about Uncovered is that you came to into the Orthodox community later, rather than being born into it. What were you looking for then?

I think I’ve spent the last twenty years trying to answer that question. I grew up in a small immigrant family—three enmeshed generations of us. My grandparents had shucked their parents’ Old World ways, and that included their Orthodoxy. My mother took that rebellion to new places. She became a fine artist with passionately liberal politics, enthralled with the new feminism. She insisted we three girls go to college and find a way to ensure we could be financially independent, she took us often to the library, and she filled our home with opera and symphonies and books and art. She hated orthodoxies of all kinds. My becoming Hasidic was the perfect adolescent rebellion.

The deal was sealed for me in college. All of the religious student organizations were burgeoning—Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Jewish—the Irani Moslem kids demonstrating on campus against the shah. It was a growing wave across the country, a move to the right that began on campuses. We were rebelling against our Sixties liberal parents. We would be the grownups, with structure, religion, reliable rules, morality like a solid scaffolding to God.

When you think about that decision now, what do you wish you had known?

1. That I could never escape my mother. That her imprint was so deep she would shape virtually every step I took away from her. Years later, when I called her and said, “Mom—I’m leaving the Hasidim. I’m leaving my husband. And I’m a lesbian,” she shouted into the phone, “You’re coming home!”

2. My family ‘s immigrant stories, which they had buried, as so many immigrants do. And that, whether or not we are conscious of family stories, we bear their imprint as well.

3. What it really means to be a hyphenated American. I wish I’d understood that most of us spend life teetering on that hyphen, aware that we have choices on either side.

4. That we are a nation of immigrants and their families. From the Mayflower to the Middle Passage, from Native Americans’ forced migrations to Ellis Island to recent refugees, journey stories have always told us who we are. If I’d understood this larger context of my own history, I might have better understood myself, and then maybe I would have been less easily subject to the neat package of identity the Hasidim offered, kissed by God.

4. Most of all, I wish I’d known I was a lesbian. The Hasidic world is no place for a lesbian! But I grew up when society had little or no public language for being gay, and I felt my feelings as so normal and natural, it didn’t dawn on me to label them. If only some girl had come along and kissed me…

Uncovered is still selling and selling and selling. Why do you think readers are so drawn to this particular story?

I was an Every Kid, a mid-continent public-school girl from a neighborhood of tract homes, from a world of sameness. I was drawn to the exotic, to a specific identity from within the melting pot, and the promise of God. A lot of my readers relate to this.

I often wonder why most of the world’s religions demand the same of women—cover your body and let shame drive your actions, lower your voice, bear children as your life goal regardless of how well-suited you are for parenthood. Arranged marriages are common to many religious orthodoxies, birth control all too often frowned upon.

For women drawn to their religion, covering one’s body and voice and passions is often the only way they have ever learned to show their love of God—prayer a dance of self-effacement. I think it more a devil’s bargain. Men give themselves just as often to religion and that’s an equal loss of spirit, even if their payoff, of power, is sweeter.

Most of the letters I’ve gotten are from people who previously knew little about orthodox Jewish life, but many had felt “covered” at some time in their lives, subjected to the will of others, their hopes or talents or passions muted and unclear, even to themselves.

I think that’s the goal of every writer—to write a story so specific that it leaps to the universal.

Do you feel your move into Hasidic life was indicative of our culture today, where people yearn for connection and community they are not really finding on social media?

Absolutely. I fantasized the Hasidic community as one large, close, supportive family. Of course, reality never comes close to our dreams.

Yes, social media gives only the illusion of community, and isolates us, but it can have the opposite effect as well. A lot more of the young people are leaving the Hasidim. For them, social media is often how they find their first community of like-minded rebels, when they feel alone among the Hasidim. That’s their window on the world.

How difficult was it for you to tell your story? I’m betting that you are still getting extraordinary responses.

I love that you seem to equate the difficulty of telling my story with the quality of the responses to it. That’s exactly how a writer would pose the question (hi, Caroline!) because we see every challenge before us in the narrative as if it’s a mountain to climb. If we can make that climb brim on the page with real world details and pack the words with the fraught heartbeat behind every toehold, the reader will climb that mountain, and afterwards, heart racing, feel triumphant.

I promised my imaginary Reader that I wouldn’t write. Instead, I would re-experience every scene, but this time I’d do it on the page. Having lived through those events once was more than enough, but that sort of self-hypnosis was the only way I knew to make it vivid. There were times when I paced and sobbed in my writing studio, my old stoicism shattered in pieces on the floor.

What do you tell people who want to follow your lead and find the life they are truly meant to be living, instead of the one that is suffocating them?

Once, as Mother and Wife, I cried to a friend in horror at my yearning to be what I thought of as selfish. She said, “Exactly what would “selfish” life look like to you?” That question became a door on my dreams. “Oh,” I said in a half-whisper. “I’d get a little apartment and I’d get to choose every item in it. Every drinking glass, or chair, or picture on the wall, would be meaningful to me, and beautiful to me, so that, just sitting in that place I’d feel fed by being there.”

 She had let me imagine a new world out into the light, in words. To me, the Selfish Monster, she then said, “that doesn’t sound selfish. It sounds…normal.”

Write down what you wish for and read it to one person. Take just one step in that direction today, no matter how small. Tomorrow, take one more.

What made things even more difficult for you was being a lesbian in the Hasidic community. Have things gotten easier for you now?

I have a happy life now with my wife and our Airedale Gracie, and yet, I hesitate to say it. Not because my Hasidic children have their issues with my openly gay life and that impedes our ability to be good, fun, loving grandparents, but because so many think that, since gay people can now marry, all is well. When my wife and I drive cross-country and stop for anything outside of an urban area, as soon as we get out of the car, we shut down casual touch and watch what we call one another. We can be refused lodging or service, but mostly we watch for those stares.

What is obsessing you now and why?

My new book Not From Here is about how I explored the world I moved back into after thirty years among the Hasidim. To know who I was now, I had to know the people around me, to  know how to be among them. I did in-depth interviews of people in my city from around the world for about a year. The experience was transformative. Not From Here is a memoir in many voices, and it is consuming me right now.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

 Maybe, “What was your turning point?” and then I’d answer that, when I was pregnant for the eighth time and felt it might kill me, I had an abortion. That was the first time in my adult life that I took control over my body or overruled rabbis. Looking back, it seems I had to own my body before I owned my future. If I hadn’t had that abortion, I probably would never have managed to leave, and wouldn’t be here talking to you.

This is also my miscellaneous place where I tell you that Uncovered is becoming an opera by Lori Laitman. Think of it—an opera about a Hasidic lesbian who has an abortion, and a lover. Uncovered is also being translated into Arabic for free download. I think of that as a love letter to my covered sisters everywhere.

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