Leah Vincent’s new memoir, “Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood,” has a happy ending. But the rest of the book has a different tone.
Born Leah Kaplan, Vincent grew up in Pittsburgh, the daughter of a prominent yeshivish (black hat) rabbi. She was one of 11 children in a household she describes as both strict and unloving. As a teenager, Vincent began to question some the community’s beliefs and traditions, expressing a desire to go to college, exchanging letters with a male friend and purchasing clothing deemed inappropriate by community standards.
When her parents discovered her deeds, they were afraid that her reputation would sully the chances of her sisters finding suitable husbands, and they cut ties with her. She was set adrift, unprepared for life alone.
She entered into relationships with drug addicts and a much older married college professor. She also began to cut herself, and was briefly confined in a psychiatric facility.
Ultimately, she went to and excelled in college, married and built a positive life. Vincent spoke to the Forward’s Curt Schleier about her upbringing and the seemingly increasing number of formerly ultra-Orthodox.
According to YourJewishNews.com, Kiryas Joel’s Satmar Hasidic community has built on 283 acres on the city’s outskirts a playground that completely separates boys from girls. More accurately, the space is divided into four areas: one for fathers with their sons; one for mothers with their daughters; one for boys, and one for girls. The sections are located a considerable distance apart from one another. There are also separate walking trails for males and females.
Kiryas Joel Mayor Rabbi Abraham Wieder approved special funding for the playground, and the Committee of Modesty of Kiryas Joel, overseen by the Grand Rebbe, Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum, is strictly supervising its operation.
This Sukkot, there is a religious battle going on in the city of Modi’in, Israel, and as often happens in such battles, it is being fought over women’s bodies.
It actually started this past Passover, when the open, mixed city of Modi’in was inundated with visitors from the neighboring ultra-Orthodox town of Modi’in Illit, also known as Kiryat Sefer. The primary attraction for the visitors was Park Anabe, a beautiful expanse that sits 200 meters from my house. While it’s taken 10 years to complete, the park is now filled with playgrounds, grassy knolls, treks, a bike-path, an amphitheater and most importantly, a 14,000 square liter lake with fountains, fish and a variety of boating. Park Anabe is a central part of Modi’in life — members of my family visit regularly — and contributes significantly to the sense of quiet tranquility that characterizes Modi’in.
Since the lake opened in 2010, that tranquility has been interrupted each Passover and Sukkot when thousands of haredi visitors flock to Modi’in to use the park, which offers wholesome entertainment, can accommodate large groups of people, and is mostly free (only the boating and ice creams cost money). But the masses of haredi visitors, who bring with them a culture that is anything but sanguine, often make it difficult for Modi’in residents who are not haredi to find a patch of grass to sit on.
For the most part, Modi’in residents have expressed a mixture of annoyance and understanding about the situation. They’re irritated at what feels like a major cultural disruption but happy that they are living in an open city in a democratic country. That the park is free and that it is such a great attraction is nice. Lucky us. But the holidays end up feeling like a massive invasion. For those weeks when we cannot use our own park, is this just a small price to pay for quality of life?
Such were the general sentiments until last Passover, when haredi visitors started to make demands of the women on Modi’in. Suddenly, things began to change. First, a woman who was performing in the park was asked to leave the stage by haredi audience members — a request to which she unfortunately acquiesced, setting a bad precedent. Then, a well-known local reporter went to the park dressed in her usual clothing (jeans and a tank-top), and was made to feel uncomfortable by other park-users. She then wrote about the experience in the local newspaper. Calls to charge entry or close the park to non-residents were posted on blogs and Facebook, but Modi’in mayor Haim Bibas did not heed the calls. At least, not at first.
The American legal system decided decades ago that there is no such thing as “separate but equal.” Segregation is just a fancy word for discrimination. And being forced to the back of a plane — or a bus — is the same as saying you’re not good enough to sit in the front.
Debra Ryder, a Florida woman who says she was pushed out of her aisle seat on an El Al flight after ultra-Orthodox men refused to sit next to her, has sued the Israeli airline. She was, she said in her August complaint, “humiliated” and led by a flight attendant to a middle seat in the back of a recent flight from New York to Tel Aviv.
Ryder is seeking $12,500 in compensation from the national carrier, and in the process has reignited a fierce argument: When does protecting the beliefs of the ultra-Orthodox constitute sexism?
To those who believe in equal treatment, it’s when women are pushed to the rear of a jetliner or to the back of a bus. To ultra-Orthodox adherents, it’s not sexism but a question of morality.
My mother is an Orthodox woman who was raised by Orthodox parents and married an Orthodox rabbi. She has also earned, thus far in her career, a bachelor’s degree and three postgraduate degrees. And while she has more degrees than the average Orthodox woman, she also has more degrees than the average American; as of this year, only 30% of American adults had at least a bachelor’s degree.
I was raised in an Orthodox household where, as you can gather, education reigned supreme, so I was frustrated when I read Katie J.M. Baker’s recent Jezebel article, “Orthodox Jews Are Unsure How They Feel About Divalicious Aspiring Politician Mindy Meyer,” about the so-called Orthodox response to Meyer — and how it’s been labeled a conversation about the domestic role of Orthodox women.
Fordham anthropology professor Ayala Fader is the author of “Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn” (Princeton University Press, 2009), which has just been named the winner of the Jewish Book Council’s 2009 Barbara Dobkin Award in Women’s Studies. The Sisterhood’s Rebecca Honig Friedman recently interviewed Fader about her fieldwork in the wilds of Borough Park, Brooklyn, what “fitting in” means among haredi women, and how her research changed her perspective on how the ultra-Orthodox live.
Rebecca Honig Friedman:“Mitzvah Girls” began as your doctoral thesis. How did you choose the topic?
Ayala Fader: Growing up on the Upper West Side as a Reform Jew, I had always been fascinated by Hasidic Jews — they had been presented to me as a remnant of a lost past. I think there was some nostalgia I had which was pretty quickly cured by fieldwork. When I began reading some of the literature on Hasidic Jews, I found out that there had not been much research done on [Hasidim’s use of Yiddish], and even less on childrearing. So for both personal and professional reasons, I chose this topic.
In the book you talk about the importance for Hasidic females of “fitting in” and being “with it.” Do you see the desire for conformity and what we might call “hipness” as being different from the similar desires of women outside the Hasidic world?