WOMEN

Leaving Her Ultra-Orthodox Past Meant More Than Losing Her Family. It Meant Redefining Her Womanhood.

“My biggest journey has been figuring out what it means to be a woman.”

 

Leah Vincent separated from her deeply religious family as a 16-year-old over the course of two phone calls. She had been sent to New York City to work as a secretary and to fend for herself. Her family had cast her out.

Vincent’s harrowing 2014 memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood, chronicles her path from religious devotion to poverty, sexual trauma and self-harm -- and shows her miraculously resurfacing with a new identity (and a degree from Harvard and a career as a writer).

Today, Vincent, 33, lives in Brooklyn, New York with her three-year-old daughter and is writing her second book, a work of fiction that expands on Cut Me Loose and explores specifically how women develop their sense of identity.

“My biggest journey has been figuring out what it means to be a woman,” Vincent told The Huffington Post in a phone interview. “Initially, that meant being completely submissive and subservient.”

Born into a three-story home in suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1982, Vincent was the fifth eldest in a family that would eventually include 11 children. Her father was a widely respected rabbi and a staple in the Yeshivish community -- an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect that keeps itself separate from the modern world.

Vincent's upbringing was extreme by most standards: higher education was forbidden, girls were not allowed to speak to boys outside of the family and any questioning of the Yeshivish faith -- they were taught -- would lead to drug addiction, prostitution or death.

It was an insulated environment and Vincent only knew other ultra Orthodox Jews. She was taught that Yeshivish Judaism was the authentic version of her religion, unchanged since Abraham. Their house was in such close proximity to the synagogue that throughout childhood, Vincent could hear daily ancient Jewish prayers float in through the bathroom windows. It was the air she breathed.

In the household, love was theoretical. She was not told that she was loved. In Cut Me Loose, Vincent writes: “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.”

Instead, the ultimate source of love was God. “I knew that his love was boundless. Even though there was his threat of hell and punishment dangling over me, there was also this sense that he was an eternal parent,” Vincent said. “Human beings have a natural need for love, especially as children. I turned to God very intensely so that I could feel loved.”

But this relationship was not always a two-way street. It was impossible to ever make God fully happy, she explained, because God expected perfection. “My foundation of selfhood rested on my spiritual well being. There was always this trembling feeling of inadequacy; of disappointing the being that mattered most to me,” she said.

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Being a woman was simple in her family. The men devoted their lives to the study of the Talmud and the women did not. “They had access to worlds that I didn’t -- and those worlds gave them more power,” Vincent said. “My brothers went on to learn in Yeshiva and follow in my father’s footsteps. That was the holiest thing a person could do and something a women could never do. Their lives somehow became more important.”

After finishing high school, the girls were expected to marry immediately and produce a child each year after that. Vincent ached to be a mother. Motherhood, she was taught, was the ultimate symbol of femininity and purpose.

At 15, Vincent was sent to England to finish high school in an even more religious setting -- a path her sister had paved with great success. But when it was discovered that Vincent had exchanged notes with a male friend, the very foundation of her place in the family shifted violently beneath her feet.

“My parents were very much the conduit for God for me. My sense of self was defined by how they thought of me and their judgment of me,” she said.

The act of communicating with a boy was forbidden and brought extreme shame to her family. She was told, in phone call one-of-two that would fully remove her from her family, that her prospects of being matched with a respectable Yeshivish husband had greatly diminished. With the hope of preserving what little reputation she had left, Vincent’s parents sent her to a seminary in Israel where she studied Jewish law and philosophy. She lived with her sister’s family.

But the thread had already started to unravel. Any small action, like purchasing a form-fitting sweater, was reported back to Vincent’s parents in Pittsburgh and they began to formally push Vincent out of the family -- saying her actions and behavior were unacceptable. This was phone call number two.

After a year in Jerusalem, Vincent, now 17, was sent to New York where three of her sisters had lived between seminary and marriage. Brooklyn was a kind of pergatory between childhood and motherhood for Yeshivish girls, Vincent explained. They waited, working as teachers or secretaries, as their parents or a matchmaker found them an acceptable husband.

But Vincent's phone did not ring. No matchmakers called. She had essentially been kicked out of the family. Her father turned his back on her entirely, never responding to her repeated calls and messages. Her mother spoke to her in clipped tones when Vincent called from New York pleading for money for food. Sometimes a twenty-dollar bill would arrive in the mail. 

This type of sudden disownment from an ultra Orthodox family is sadly not uncommon. The community is so insular that often the smallest break from tradition can catalyze a complete separation.

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Heartbroken, scared and alone in a secular world that was completely foreign to her, Vincent was forced to rebuild herself from scratch. It was a journey that got worse before it got better; a road that included so much pain and sorrow that she didn’t know if she could continue living.

Vincent lived alone and worked as a secretary, barely making enough money to eat. She had no friends and her voice was often hoarse in the mornings because she hadn’t spoken to anyone since she left the office the day before. She had very little experience socially and no experience romantically.

At 17, Vincent was raped by a man she was seeing and contracted pelvic inflammatory disease -- an infection of the female reproductive organs. She was told she may never have children. In her book, Vincent described this as a “complete eclipse of my future self.”

Her pain and trauma were so intense that she began to cut herself as a way of coping. At first, little pricks covered her arms and legs but eventually long, declarative marks replaced them. She started to engage in dangerous sexual behavior and details in her book the many ways she put herself at risk, which included prostitution.

At one point she slipped into such a dark place that a suicide attempt landed her in a psychiatric hospital. Her family was informed but no one came to visit.

Feeling that she had nothing to lose -- that she had already lost everything that meant something to her in her former life -- she followed through on an urge that would be considered insane in her family. She went to college.

She took night and weekend classes at Brooklyn College while working full time. She studied psychology and art. It took her five years to finish, but in 2006 at the age of 24, she had a degree. The first in her family. “For some impossible reason I always had this hope that I would make it through and be okay in the end,” she said.

But building a new sense of self was a long journey. “For so many years, my life was this harrowing, horrible story. And then it started to improve and although some of it was good fortune, I knew that so much of it I could take credit for. That gave me a sense of pride and a counter to the voices in my head that said I was unlovable or evil or bad,” she said.

In 2007, she was accepted to Harvard for a Master’s program in public policy. It was a future she could have never fathomed growing up. “My mom had very clearly told me there were two career options: I could either teach at a Jewish high school or I could become a secretary,” she said.

In her twenties, after completely detaching from her fundamentalist upbringing, Vincent started to redefine what it meant to be a woman. She described it as a gradual awakening.

“I made very slow progress in starting to think about how I could build an identity for myself as a woman outside of my relationship with men. Moving to have my own opinions and my own voice,” she said.

This also meant redefining what her body meant to her. After years of cutting, Vincent embraced a different kind of mark on her skin -- a permanent one.

When she got a tattoo of the Hebrew letter aleph on her wrist, Vincent was both rebelling and expanding. Jewish law forbids any permanent markings on the skin. But Vincent remembered a teacher from seminary diagramming the symbol. “It conveys this idea that we are not all angelic or not all animal, but that human beings are a balance between the two. Kind of like a Jewish Ying and Yang,” she explained.

“My tattoo was a major milestone. It was such a clear pivot. Something huge shifted. I realized that my body belonged to me and that I had ownership over it,” Vincent said. After that day, she never cut herself again.

“Our bodies are always changing, especially for women. It’s a way of remembering my story and remembering who I am. It’s something that links my life to the person I am today.” 

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Vincent kept a diary throughout her entire life. She always believed it might come in handy, and years later, it did. She published her memoir in 2014 after working on it intensely for two years. Her relationship with her family was already deeply fractured and worsened after the book came out. “They really saw [it] as an act of treason and severed any relationship we might have had,” Vincent explained.

Vincent says she felt very comfortable with what she revealed about other people. She wasn’t writing an exposé on anybody else. “If this were an exposé on my parents I would have told very different stories -- or a great many more stories than I did. I really only told the stories that were relevant to my story,” she said.

“There is a lot of backlash about anybody who comes out and tells his or her story," she said, referring to the Yeshivish community. "I got a little bit of that. Occasionally I will get a nasty email. My father had a pretty painful response." Her mother did not comment on the book.

But there is one family member who is proud of her for sharing her story and tells her so to this day.

Vincent’s younger brother broke away from the family years after she did. He sought her out in New York to talk -- before he was ready to fully break ties with their parents. But he eventually did. They are extremely close today.

“We need family for so many reasons. But one of them is family is how we hold our memories. To have somebody who remembers my childhood with me is so powerful. Somebody who gets my references and knows where I come from. I am so grateful that I have him,” she said.

Years ago, Vincent became involved in Footsteps, a nonprofit that provides support and resources to those leaving insular Jewish communities. It was there that she started sharing her story and listened to other former ultra Orthodox people share their journeys. It’s also where she met her husband. She served on the board for many years.

“Telling stories informally in our private lives and telling stories publicly is so important. There’s been a huge wave of personal memoirs in the past 10 to 15 years -- I think it’s part of this new wave of feminism. It’s a powerful, wonderful thing,” Vincent said.

“I have become very passionate about women’s inner worlds. I think that patriarchal societies silence women’s voices." Women's interior worlds and the complex ways they develop their identities will be a focus in Vincent's new book.  

"For me, the act of truth telling is a revolutionary act. It strengthens this muscle in me that tells me my experiences have legitimacy and power. Bringing that into view starts to shift the paradigm.”

 

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