Monday, January 20, 2014
Leah Vincent, though happily married, hasn’t taken her husband’s surname. But “Vincent” isn’t the last name she grew up with. She does not share it with her father, a prominent Orthodox rabbi from Pittsburgh or any of her ten siblings. She assumed “Vincent” in her 20s when she was briefly married to a roommate in need of a green card. He got to remain in the United States and she got to forge a new identity, one that is separate from the strict religious upbringing she was looking to escape.
“Growing up with such an influential father, every time I said my own name, I was reminded that my father was disappointed in me and everything I had left behind,” Vincent, 31, told me in advance of the publication of her memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood. “Now every time I say my name, it’s like a fresh slate. Nobody else gets to decide what Vincent means.”
The story of how she became Vincent—the first in her family to attend college, a recipient of a Harvard masters degree, mother of a young daughter, and most significantly, a formerly ultra-Orthodox Jew—comprises the narrative arc of the book.
It starts with Vincent as a devout young girl in Pittsburgh, who has wholly accepted her role as a woman in her community and the life plan that had been preordained—marriage and motherhood—and both as soon as possible. “I also thought it was the only possibility,” Vincent said. “It’s like asking a penguin, ‘How do you feel about growing up to be a penguin?’ It’s like—‘I’m a penguin. This is my calling.’”
It wasn’t until her teens that she started to realize that she might not be a penguin: She had asked some inappropriate questions and had a G-rated flirtation with a boy. Once discovered by her parents and family, the young Vincent was pushed aside, put on the family back burner, so to speak, waiting for marriage and for her life to begin. (Not that she was on track for such an outcome, given her reputation for minor transgressions.)
“It’s a gigantic waste of talent and opportunity to sit around waiting for some man to give you permission to fill a role,” Vincent commented.
Many of the reviews of Vincent’s book are likely to focus on the details of her Orthodox upbringing, exoticizing the unfamiliar elements such as the strictures of kashrut (rules pertaining to what is and isn't permissible to eat) and the Sabbath and strict codes of female modesty. But Cut Me Loose isn’t particularly salacious in recounting the details of the ultra-Orthodox experience. (If you’re looking for a more scandal-driven tome, Deborah Feldman’s 2012 bestseller Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots might be a more appropriate choice. Scandal is baked right into the title.) Vincent’s agenda doesn’t seem to be lifting the veil on her former community and sensationalizing ultra-Orthodox life. Besides, stating the facts plainly is often sensational enough for the uninitiated.
That’s not to say the reader won’t learn a great deal about the Orthodox community from reading this memoir. But if you can resist the urge to engage in pop culture anthropologizing and mentally set aside the exotic details, what emerges is a more universal story of feminist awakening. Vincent journeys from a black and white space, where gender roles are rigidly enforced to a grayer space where women have more options, but not as many we’d like. (For instance, women don’t have the option to be unattractive in our so-called “enlightened” society.)
“When I told the story, it was very important to me that this was a girl’s story, of coming into womanhood, and the religious aspect is the background of the story,” she commented.
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