Uncovered, by Leah Lax.
Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home, by Leah Lax. She Writes Press (2015), 256 pages.
A moving, compassionate life story by a woman describing why she was drawn into ultra-conservative Judaic life, what that life was like, and how she slowly rejected it.
Leah Lax is an excellent writer, one who is able to write about her own life with clarity and grace. She brings readers inside her experiences, allowing us to empathize with choices that seem strange and exotic from the outside. The story she tells is fast-paced and full of tension as she conveys the inner contradictions with which she lived.
The book opens with Lax’s wedding and her farewell to the life she had known as the daughter of a successful Jewish family in north Dallas. From there Lax flashes back to her earlier life and the dysfunctional family that she saw as leaving her ill-equipped and helpless as an adolescent in the 1960s. When she encountered Hasidic Judaism with its extensive rules, she felt she had found the father and mother, the ordered family, she had never known. This section of the book is particularly well-written, identifying the distress of many young people in recent generations who feel adrift and respond by seeking authoritative groups.
After her marriage, Lax found much she cherished in her religion and its rituals. She particularly loved the distinctive music, sung in public only by the men. Her new religion taught her that she would be safe if she simply obeyed all its rules, a claim she later came to doubt. It also required her and the other women always to be “covered,” in body and in voice. She even covered her beloved cello. While attentive to her faith, Lax observed and resented the ways she and other women are excluded and humiliated in the religious community. At first her husband was kind and attentive until he got caught up in his own need to do everything right and to make enough money to support their ever-growing family. She became pregnant eight times in ten years. When the seventh infant was premature and she was dangerous ill, her doctor advised her against having another child. When she got pregnant again, the thought of an abortion left her torn between the unborn infant and the needs of herself and her existing children. Anyone who issues blanket condemnation of abortion needs to read this section.
As Lax moved through her internal and external crises, she gradually came to challenge the demands patriarchal religions made on her, particularly as a woman. Only after her children are grown was she able to leave the cocoon of her religion. Even then she moved slowly. Part of her way out is finding fulfillment in her long-buried lesbianism.
In a recent interview, Lax fleshed out some of the points in her book and provided some clues about why the book is so good. She had started writing before leaving her husband and community, but as she put it, she waited until her anger had cooled enough for her to write about the people in her life in three dimensions to finish and publish. She urged women who felt bound in restrictive religious communities to realize that deciding to leave is a slow process. She advises them to start by reading books by women, making one small step at a time, and finding a supportive woman friend outside the group.
I was initially hesitant to read this book group choice because I expected it to be grim and oppressive. The life described is so different than my own that I doubted that I would be able to relate to the author. I was wrong. Although my life has taken a different path, I understood all too well what Lax was saying about patriarchal religion and the need to make difficult moral choices yourself. And this is a warm, loving book in which pain is faced and deep spiritual growth takes place.
I gladly recommend Uncovered to other readers, especially those who care about women’s spiritual journeys in patriarchal religions. it is an important book that deserves to be widely read.