Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood

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9780143127413: Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood

An electrifying memoir about a young woman’s self-destructive spiral after being cast out by her ultra-Orthodox Jewish family

In the vein of Prozac Nation and Girl, Interrupted, this brutally honest memoir tells the story of one woman’s struggle to define herself as an individual. Leah Vincent was born into the Yeshivish community, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect that shuns the modern world. When, at sixteen, Leah was caught exchanging letters with a boy—breaking a religious ban on contact between the sexes—her family cut all ties. Sent to live on her own in New York City, adrift and unprepared for the freedoms of secular life, Leah’s desperate loneliness coupled with her stubborn loyalty to the dogma of her past pulled her into a vicious cycle of promiscuity and self-harm. It took a shocking state of despair to empower her to transform a life of tragedy into a tale of unexpected triumph, one that illuminates both the oppressive world of religious fundamentalism and the broader issues facing young women from all backgrounds as they grapple with sexuality and identity.

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About the Author:

Leah Vincent is a writer and an activist. A first-generation college student, Leah went on to earn a Master’s in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School as a Pforzheimer Fellow. Leah now works on projects that address social justice within ultra-Orthodoxy, the rise of Jewish fundamentalism, and the female experience of shame. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Salon, Unpious, ZEEK, The Daily Beast and The Jewish Daily Forward.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

author’s note

chapter one

MY FATHER, RABBI SHAUL KAPLAN, was a short, stiff-shouldered man with flat, sad eyes and a high forehead that faded into a bald pate. Like all Yeshivish men, he dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, and black fedora. When we picked through the laundry heap, looking for clean underwear, we would find his sleeveless undershirts and his worn boxers, translucent from too many washes.

There were eventually eleven of us: Goldy, Shaindy, Elisha, Chumi, me, Deena, Mordy, Boorie Tzvi, Dov, Yanky, Miriam. We were each two years apart. We had big brown eyes, olive skin, pixie chins, and wildly distinct personalities.

We called our father “Tatte.” Because we were Yeshivish, we didn’t speak a fluent Yiddish, like the Hasidim did, but our English was sprinkled with a few words in that language, when English could not do justice to a concept.

My father had called his own father “Dad,” but as a child I was not critical enough to reflect on the discrepancy between the little I knew of his history and his insistence that our way of life had always been as it was.

 • • • 

Our three-story home sat on the bottom of a hilly street in a quiet, residential area of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On Thursday morning, a few hours before Passover would begin, I was standing in my favorite spot: behind the open kitchen door, where my mother hung my father’s clean shirts that were waiting to be ironed. All of his shirts were white, collared, and button-down, but they were not all the same. Some had a checked pattern of shiny white-on-white thread. Some were transparent with wear. Most, however, had hard stays inserted into the collar, two sharp, oblong pieces of cardboard on either side of the neck. My favorite activity at age nine was to stand behind the open door, right index finger thrust backward in my mouth, sucking hard, left hand on a collar stay. I’d run my thumb and finger around the edge, bend the cardboard, relishing the dig of the pointed end into the fleshy part of my thumb, and flip the stay while it was still in its pocket. My father, busy with prayer, teaching, lecturing, and counseling, was rarely home. As with God, I treasured him through his rare artifacts.

As the ultra-Orthodox rabbi of the largest semi-Orthodox synagogue in western Pennsylvania, my father devoted his life to bringing his congregants closer to God by urging them to leave their Modern Orthodox ways and embrace God’s true will: the Yeshivish lifestyle. At this, he was successful. Over the years, congregants exchanged knit kippas for black hats, and delicate hair doilies for heavy wigs.

Our house sat kitty-corner to the synagogue, so in the summer, with the windows of the sanctuary cantilevered ajar and our small bathroom window open, I could hear Kaddish while sitting on the toilet. Whenever this happened, I’d have to clap my hands over my ears. As an observant Jew, you could not hear Kaddish and not respond, “May his great Name be blessed forever and ever,” but you also could not speak of God in the bathroom.

Men prayed in the synagogue three times a day, but women went only on Saturday and holiday mornings, and, even then, their attendance was not required. So while my father spoke to God from a cherrywood throne beside the holy ark, overlooking a thousand pews, my mother murmured quick morning prayers hidden behind the kitchen door. I was unusual as a child in that I preferred to sneak away on Friday night to sway along to the songs that welcomed the Shabbos. I loved to feel goose bumps prickle my arms as the languorous “Lecha Dodi” changed halfway into a rollicking tune, almost as much as I loved that moment when the service ended and the room emptied and I could walk through the men’s section as if God’s home was my own. I would wait on the side as my father put away his holy books and offered some last words of guidance to his congregants. My shy stance declared that I belonged to the rabbi and, therefore, to God.

 • • • 

That morning, before Passover, I stood sucking my finger, fiddling with my father’s collars, tucked out of the way, as my two younger brothers chased each other up and down the stairs belting out, “Tamid tamid tamid tamid tamid b’simcha,” and two of my older sisters had a showdown over a new library book. It was a special day, and not just because of the approaching holiday. This was the day my father went to the video store.

Television and movie theaters were forbidden in our Yeshivish community, but before Passover, my father, an otherwise unyielding man, would relent and rent a few classic movies. They would keep us glued to the borrowed VCR in the attic, freeing my mother to whip together pans of tongue and roasted chickens and brownies and waves of crispy meringues, which she’d ice with thick mocha cream and adorn with strawberry slices.

I sucked my finger until the skin wrinkled, waiting for my father to return from the synagogue.

Please, HaShem, I silently prayed to God. Please let Tatte choose me.

When my father finally came home, he headed to the kitchen to talk to my mother. Elisha, my thirteen-year-old brother, home for Passover from his yeshiva in Chicago, bounded in after him, beckoning to me and to my seven-year-old sister, Deena, to join him in the hallway.

“Guess what!” Elisha whispered. Deena and I huddled in. “You’re not going to believe this! The butcher, he—he—” With our attention captured, Elisha paused dramatically to fix his yarmulke, which was sliding off his curly hair. Deena and I glanced curiously at each other.

A week before, just after Elisha had arrived home, he had passed on the juicy information that the butcher, a man as tall as a door and fat, too, had yelled at my father in the synagogue, angry about some ruling my father had made. Because he got to hang out with the men, Elisha always overheard the best gossip. We all agreed that the butcher must be crazy. Most of my father’s congregants worshipped him, sometimes speaking to him in the third person and always using a tone of respect.

“The butcher,” Elisha continued, his eyes wide, looking from Deena to me and back to Deena. “His wife found him dead, completely, totally, absolutely naked on their bathroom floor. The butcher is dead.”

Elisha grinned, nodding his head slowly. In shocked silence, Deena and I pondered the strength of God’s swift and brutal judgment on my father’s behalf.

My father passed us, and the three of us guiltily drifted apart. He reached for his hat, which was resting on a mountain of books. I scanned his face, looking for some sign of God’s mighty anger in his features, but my father’s eyes were peaceful, his calm lips buried in the hairs of his beard.

“Who do you want me to take, Mamme?” he called to my mother as he adjusted his hat.

The video store! I had forgotten!

Elisha, Deena, and I sidled up to him, our eyes silently begging: Please, pick me. Even in our desperation, we didn’t get too close to my father.

“Pick whoever,” my mother answered. Streaks of blood ran over her hands as she removed the innards from the chickens piled before her. She rested her pregnant belly against the countertop, swiping at her cheek with her shoulder.

“Leah, do you want to come?” my father asked. “You’re ready?”

I nodded. My throat was too thick with pride to answer.

“Get good ones this time!” Deena instructed. “Tatte’s favorite!” she added accusingly, in a hiss.

“Get the Abbott and Costello with the bases!” Elisha commanded.

Their requests floated past me as I stumbled to catch up with my father, who was striding toward the station wagon.

 • • • 

At Sun Video, I stared longingly at the forbidden pinks and purples of the new Disney blockbusters while my father asked me if I wanted an Abbott and Costello comedy or Kidnapped. I did not know that my father had grown up on these classic movies. I only knew that the more modern a thing, the more promiscuous, the more suspect. Non-Jews believed that they were descended from monkeys and so every generation forward was better than the last, but we knew that our ancestors had received the Torah from God, so every new generation was reduced in holiness.

Kidnapped,” I told him.

 • • • 

A few hours later, I met Davie on-screen. A brave Scottish boy, he raced over the highlands escaping the bad guys, who marched ominously down the hills. Maybe it was his relentless courage. Maybe it was his blond curls and square jaw. Maybe it was just the right boy at the right time. It was instant love.

 • • • 

My mother stopped by my bed that night, as she always did, her pregnant body sinking into the mattress. Every year of my childhood, she was either pregnant or nursing a new baby.

“Did you say Shema?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Well then, close your eyes and say good night. Sleep tight. I loo loo, Leah, I loo loo.” She brushed her cool fingers down the side of my face.

“Loo loo,” a child’s attempt at the words “love you,” was the only way that sentiment was expressed between mortals in our house. My parents were not literate in the language of human emotion. Love was gleaned from the tone of my mother’s voice or the softness of her eyes. When I was very young, she and my father would sometimes call me “Leahchke,” and there were volumes of affection to sustain me in that generous diminutive. My father was more effusive. Every Friday night, after blessing the children, he would place one careful kiss on the top of each of our heads. Sometimes, as rarely and spontaneously as a sun shower, he would pause behind my chair and gift my head with an unearned kiss.

 • • • 

After my mother left my bedroom, I nestled into my pillowcase, with its smell of sweat and honey, fantasizing: It was my eighteenth birthday. A knock at the door. In came the movie star Davie, dressed in a black hat and dark suit.

“I’m Jewish,” he tells my father. “I became religious, and I’ve spent the past ten years studying the Torah day and night, and now I want to marry your daughter Leah.”

I would never be allowed to marry a lowly returnee to Judaism, but in my fantasy, Davie’s lineage didn’t matter. The sleeves of my wedding dress would be as big as basketballs. “You look gorgeous,” everyone would say. In the years that followed, Davie would love me, Leah Kaplan, the way I loved only God: more than anyone in the world, forever and always.

chapter two

THERE WERE FEW PROSPECTS IN PITTSBURGH for a Yeshivish teenager approaching the age of marriage, so at sixteen, my oldest sister, Goldy, dropped out of high school to go to the prestigious Manchester Seminary, in England. While Pittsburgh had a few hundred Modern Orthodox Jews, a few dozen Lubavitch Hasidic families, and about fifteen Yeshivish families, Manchester had enough Yeshivish people to fill multiple schools and dozens of synagogues. Its seminary attracted hundreds of top Yeshivish girls from all over the world. Because England offered an abbreviated high school system, the seminary enrolled girls as young as sixteen. The sooner in, the quicker out, the faster a girl could move from her father’s home to her husband’s.

A few weeks after Goldy left, we leaned our curly heads around the tape recorder, shouting hellos to her in England. When she came home for Passover, we ran through the airport to meet her. “Bazooka gum is kosher!” Deena shrieked, reaching Goldy first, exploding with excitement at this recent piece of good news.

I wanted to be that missed. I made up my mind that I would do exactly what Goldy had done. When I was sixteen, I, too, would go to Manchester Seminary, and hopefully I would be as successful as she soon was: a marriage shortly after she graduated and a baby each following year.

Initially, my parents supported my plan, but as my adolescence unfolded, they changed their tune.

The first problem arose when I objected to my father’s use of the word shvartze.

“‘African American,’ please,” I begged.

Shvartze just means ‘black’,” he chided me. “Blacks aren’t like other non-Jews. They live like animals.” His understanding of God’s will was vastly different from that of his own father, a rabbi who had marched with black preachers in the 1960s, demanding civil rights.

Then there was the issue of several new brothers-in-law, who wrapped my father in conversations in Hebrew and Aramaic that I, as a girl, could not understand. I was used to my father sharing his wisdom in English at the Shabbos table, meeting my eyes whenever he spoke.

Now my brothers-in-law sat beside my father at holiday meals. “Can you repeat that in English?” I would ask loudly from the end of the table. My sisters rolled their eyes at my immodesty.

“Someone wants attention,” Deena frequently snickered.

Concerned about the corrupting influence of my classmates in Pittsburgh, my parents decided that I would leave Pennsylvania a year earlier than we had originally planned. After tenth grade I would move in with my Aunt Fraidy and Uncle Vrumi in Manchester, where I would attend the stringent local Bais Yaakov high school. And then I’d be back on course: Manchester Seminary, marriage, children, grandchildren, the World to Come.

 • • • 

When it was time to leave for the bus that would take me to the airport in New York, I ran after my suitcase as I slid it down the stairs. My mother wagged a black snow cap in my face as I kneeled to tie my sneakers. “You have to wear this hat!” she insisted. “I’ll be too worried about you traveling alone. I don’t want anyone starting trouble with you.”

“It’s an old lady’s hat!” I grabbed my suitcase and tugged it to the door, where my father was waiting, keys in hand. I hoped that if I could get the suitcase out to the porch, my mother would give up on the hat and focus on saying good-bye and telling me how much she was going to miss me.

“A hat is not going to make me invisible,” I protested. “I won’t talk to anyone, I promise, I’ll be so so safe.”

“Just wear it,” my father said. “You’re not going to be harmed, anyhow. You’re friends with black people, aren’t you?”

I watched him stride down the driveway to the car, my mouth agape at his insult. I had complained about the racism rampant in Yeshivish communities, but I was not so perverted as to be friends with non-Jews.

A playful wind blew at my ponytail, lifting my hair off my neck. “You better go on,” my mother said, finally giving up on the hat. “Have a safe trip.”

 • • • 

Manchester was gray and wet. Through a steady cold drizzle, I took in my new neighborhood: a religious suburban enclave of low brick homes and small green lawns. The Manchester Bais Yaakov was housed in a decrepit mansion on the far side of the highway at the edge of town, a twenty-minute walk from the heart of the community. I learned my way around the high school and around my cousins, my shyness cloaking me in nervous silence as...

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