Books: Unintentionally revealing

Leah Lax, harboring a secret, held deeply contradictory feelings about her marriage and her community. In the end, she walked away from them both.

Young woman with suitcase in hand going away by a rural road (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Young woman with suitcase in hand going away by a rural road
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Many have read and applauded Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home as the brave story of a middle- aged woman who steps into her truth after decades of living in an oppressive, patriarchal religious system.
It’s not hard to understand the appeal of that viewpoint, which casts Leah Lax’s memoir as a story of triumph.
Other readers will judge the story more harshly, seeing it as a selfish, and even scandalous departure from existing family commitments. Still others will read Uncovered with a compassionate eye and see in it the story of a woman whose life changed in ways that surprised even her.
And some, perhaps the more psychologically inclined readers, will be left with an impression of a woman who puts on her game face while still licking wounds from her previous life. These readers will sense that there’s another agenda in this book that’s hinted at but not addressed outright. Such a reader may sense that parts of Uncovered are painfully, albeit unwittingly, self-disclosing.
Leah Lax, formerly Lisa, was a secular teenager from a troubled home.
Over her teen years, she became drawn to an Orthodox lifestyle through the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s outreach work on her university campus. In so doing, she escaped her mother’s negligence and the mental illness that caused her father to melt into himself.
Woven into the opening scene – 19-year-old Leah’s marriage to 26-year-old Levi on a scorching hot August day in Dallas, Texas – are the tensions that run through the entire memoir. In the retelling 40 years later, Leah is cynical about the religious life she once chose. She refers, with a tinge of superiority, to women who remain religious as “covered women.”
She describes her first Chabad rabbi as having a “fierce and pious beard” and reports that he had “a gruff style and a dismissive manner with women.” Yet she was so loyal to him at the time that “it was a given that Rabbi Frumen [not his real name] could interrupt my studying for a test in government and my plans to spend the afternoon practicing cello.”
This early scene, in which she has been summoned to discuss a marriage match, foreshadows the deepest secret Lax holds.
The panic that arises while discussing a possible husband brings forth memories of a girl she was in love with, before she fully understood the implications of those feelings. Though she will go on to marry and raise a large hassidic family, Lax has always been attracted to women.
Wielding her pen like a weapon against the social pressure she felt to marry young, it’s impossible to tell whether she is more angry or more wounded when she writes, “In place of courtship, I had 20 minutes in front of Rabbi Frumen on a folding chair in an emptied storage room beneath a tacked up poster of the rebbe.”
Lax details her spiritual search, which includes a flirtation with becoming a liberal rabbi. Ultimately, and without much difficulty, she walks away from liberal Judaism and into the arms of the Orthodox world. At a traditional Shabbat dinner early in her search, where “men and women were seated at opposite sides of the room,” it occurs to Lax that the Orthodox world might help her sort out some of her confusion related to gender roles when she muses that “...unlike in school, where I didn’t know how to be a ‘woman,’ here, maybe I could get the rules right.”
It’s clear from her description of the (exclusively male) singing and dancing at this early Shabbat dinner with the hassidic community that Lax is going to have to diminish herself in order to fit in. By her own admission, she wants to belong. So she does what it takes to fit in, denying parts of herself that turn out to be critically important.
This same sense of ambivalent unease trails like a ribbon through her descriptions of her marriage. Throughout the book, it’s impossible to tell whether Lax more loved her husband or hated him, whether she more appreciated him or resented him. In the end, she can no longer deny her truth. Lax held deeply contradictory feelings about her marriage and her community for such a long time.
In the end, she walked away from both of them.
Like others who leave the hassidic world and then write a memoir, including Shulem Deen, who wrote All Who Go Do Not Return, and Deborah Feldman, who wrote Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, Lax leaves everything behind. It’s as if the wounds of having once lived a hassidic life require that the survivors become completely secular.
Lax is a gifted writer and her prose is captivating. The story of a woman who leaves a fundamentalist life for one that allows her to fully express her creative and sexual self is compelling. Uncovered is a worthwhile read, as long as you aren’t expecting to close the back cover with a satisfying sense of closure.