I Offer You Mouths: A Q&A with Leah Lax

Article by liz

Fundamentalist religion fascinates me, in part because of how narrowly I avoided it. My parents dutifully hauled my sister and I to Sunday school to please both sets of devoutly Roman Catholic grandparents. Maybe if we’d lived closer to the rest of our clans (my Detroit-native parents left our entire family when they moved to Houston in 1980), the collective pressure might have kept us rigidly observant. But we all quit with a collective sigh of relief when I was eight. That was long enough, though, to shape a part of me I’ve never been able to re-form.

I think, sometimes—more often, now, with Duggars and Sister Wives and Scientologists in our media—about the potential version of myself that stayed in the Catholic church through her teens, her twenties. What messages might she have internalized about women? What punishments might she have inflicted upon herself when her burgeoning sexuality reared its inquisitive little head?

Leah Lax’s UNCOVERED, then, was scary for me to read at times. I kept seeing myself in it. UNCOVERED tells Lax’s story of converting to ultra-conservative Hasidic Judaism in college, and the life she lived as a covered woman (Luvabitcher Hasidic women dress modestly and aren’t allowed to show their hair in public). The entire dichotomy of covered and uncovered resonates through the book, as Lax unflinchingly tells her story of marrying and raising an enormous family—before coming out as a lesbian and leaving the sect she’d lived in for thirty years. It’s a very particular set of experiences that Lax relates in UNCOVERED, but they resonate in far more universal ways. Especially for me, who also struggled with my faith clashing with my identity—but I don’t talk about that the way UNCOVERED does. My faith and my conflict with it is still something I’m ashamed of. I stay “covered,” as it were. I don’t have the courage to write about it so much, just yet.

I’m glad that Leah Lax did.

There’s a chemistry experiment where you dissolve more salt in water than you should be able to. Normally, as it cools, it’d form crystals, but if you don’t disturb it at all, it won’t. It still looks like water. Then all you have to do is add a teeny grain of salt—a seed crystal—and the whole solution will crystallize in moments into a solid block.

UNCOVERED feels like the seed crystal dropped in the quiet, undisturbed water of fundamentalism. It’s the starting point: a beautiful, clear book that thousands of other crystals can form from. If UNCOVERED resonated so strongly with me, who barely lived a quarter of Lax’s experiences, how much will it speak to women who have been covered for nearly a lifetime?

Brazos Bookstore: I was struck by the non-linear way UNCOVERED travels through your life. You begin with your marriage, then go back to your youth and your entrance into the Hasidic community, returning to marriage and family life later in the book. Why did you choose to tell your story in the order you did?

Leah Lax: I decided to begin the story at my formal entry into life as a covered woman, at the wedding. Then I uncovered the story, so to speak, to take you back and see what had led me to that moment. Besides, everyone loves a wedding! They are liminal moments, transition points into a new life.

Early in the process of writing UNCOVERED, I was quite affected by Karen Armstrong’s memoir THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE, about her life as a nun and her adjustment into the world after she left the convent. But she never explains why she chose that life, and we never get to see the family she left behind. For me, those questions rang through her book. How I came to be standing under a wedding canopy next to a bearded Hasidic man was an essential part of the story, and that involved family. So I took a deep breath and took you there, back into my youth, trying to show you without flinching what might propel a Texas secular public school girl into becoming a covered woman.

BB: Being so intensely personal about self and faith, I feel UNCOVERED has the power to resonate with many different types of people, as well as maybe inspire something more difficult—whether that’s an internal self-examination or something more external. Do you have hopes for what kinds of questions UNCOVERED may provoke?

LL: I do, but I tried, while writing, not to imagine what those questions will be. They are the readers’ part of the conversation that writing a book only begins. I didn’t want to force that conversation, or the writing might become polemical. I hoped only, and still do, that my book would evoke a broad array of questions, responses, revelations from a wide variety of people and experiences, proving how universal my quirky story is. That is certainly, gratefully, happening.

The writer only births a book. It is readers’ conversations about the book that give it depth and make it grow up into the world.

BB: The word “gay” doesn’t appear in UNCOVERED until almost two-thirds of the way in—which I think made a lot of sense with the way you describe Hasidic Law restricting your thoughts about yourself. Could you talk a little bit about that choice?

LL: Yes. You understood. I was depicting someone terrified of the word. I would not have allowed that label even in my mind. So I made the character called “I” a classic unreliable narrator by showing you her infatuation with Ana, the homoerotic appeal of the Hasidim that sparked her, and the lesbian dreams, allowing you to draw conclusions she refused to draw about herself. In this way, you will understand that she doesn’t have or won’t allow herself the vocabulary to acknowledge these things.

BB: You mention in later chapters how the honesty of your writing, especially “Berkeh’s Story,” drew a scolding from the highest authority of Hasidic law. Has there been any response to your memoir from members of the Hasidic community, or from former members who’ve left, encouraging or otherwise? If not yet, do you hope there will be?

LL: As yet there’s been almost no response from members of the Hasidic community, but that doesn’t surprise me. Most are cut off from secular literature and will never know my book exists. Among the Lubavitcher Hasidim, more of them engage in quiet and even subversive reading, but there’s still a kind of veil between them and us, and I’m no longer one of them.

For me to receive any kind of official response from a rabbi or community leader, UNCOVERED would have to have made serious inroads into that community (which might be kind of delightful), although the title and cover alone will make some of them object. For the moment still looking with Hasidic eyes, I had a bolt of terror when I saw that book cover for the first time. I actually made the artist put a dress on the woman, but it looked awful.

Recently, I’ve had a little private, unofficial traffic from covered women on my Facebook page that tugs on my heart. A few sent messages of encouragement. I sent similar messages back to them.

I guess plenty of other authors’ secret wishes involve major network television, international prizes, and the New York Times. Sure, I’d like those things (who wouldn’t) but my most closely held, dearest wish would be to hear of UNCOVERED quietly passed around by covered women of many denominations, through those closed feminine spaces you enter in my book. I want my book whispered about among them, dreamed about. I keep daydreaming about getting a copy to poor trapped Michelle Duggar. I wonder, could UNCOVERED bring any of those women to look long and hard in the mirror, make them whisper questions they too often don’t dare ask: What do you wish you could do? Where would you go? Who would you be?

BB: As a gender-segregated society, much of your narrated life in the Hasidic community involves female-only spaces, such as the mikvah or the women’s section of the synagogue. These spaces, and the spaces you describe in which women interact with each other, seem to hold a very real spiritual significance in the book. (Or maybe I just picked up on it more, as a graduate of a women’s college.) Has the process of writing UNCOVERED, or your work such as The Mikvah Project, affected the way you see female-only spaces? Do you see those spaces as important still?

LL: During those years, I spent most of my time toggling between female-dominated places (like my kitchen and the school where I taught) and female-only places (like the women’s section in the synagogue and the mikvah). Writing UNCOVERED did clarify what those spaces meant.

Even though we were gender-segregated and the women spent a lot of time together, we didn’t even imagine to complain, or express doubts or lack of faith to one another, and never spoke about anything remotely sexual. Gossip was quick and powerful and served well to maintain community norms. So, there were no let-your-hair-down late night drinks with girlfriends where we griped about husbands or expressed outrageous wishful thinking aloud, evoking wry laughter. We came together, but not really. Instead, since most of us weren’t born Hasidic and stayed kind of insecure, some postured their religiosity during those gatherings, like a gang member strutting for street cred.

And yet, and yet, those female-only ritual spaces—the women’s section in the synagogue and the mikvah—were spiritual places. I felt alone there, disconnected, yes, but relieved of male dominance and expectations, safe and unguarded.

After I left, I came to love exactly the kind of female-only gatherings we never had in Hasidic life. Then I met Gloria Steinem at a writing retreat, she took interest in my work, and late one night she told me about the gatherings she had through the seventies and eighties with Bella Abzug and one other (wish I remembered that third person). Once a week they downloaded their struggles, failures, secret wishes, and petty complaints of the past week to one another. Then they passed around a toy magic wand and each tapped the speaker on the shoulder, making “all of that” disappear, which made them laugh. This took Gloria through the founding of Ms, the NOW convention in Houston, the fight over the ERA, etc. etc., and Abzug through her stellar years in Congress. To hear her tell it, it was why they never backed down. She said real female gatherings are necessary for women to then go and speak out in the world, the place where you float the first balloon, get humble, try your voice, remember to laugh. I love that.

BB: One of my favorite sections of the book was about your awakening to secular literature and female authors. What authors or titles would be on “Leah Lax’s Feminist Reading List” for someone looking to add more women’s voices to their reading?

LL: I’m so glad you asked this. Too many still feel their voices are covered—by religion and traditional expectations but also by online cacophony and male-dominated media, so that I think it vital for women to read women writers—it’s a huge part of how we find our voices. I think it vital that men read women writers, because otherwise half their society is muted, thin and pale and not even three-dimensional, so how can they know the world they seek to understand, the voices they want to hear? There is a reason male writers often struggle writing female characters!

WRITING A WOMAN’S LIFE by Carolyn Heilbrun goes at the top. Written in 1988, the book is still relevant for anyone trying to write about someone who lives his or her life in terms of others and therefore confronts key events and still doesn’t dare act, or feel. How can you shape a story about this person when you can’t find those moments of confrontation, decision, action that define a plot? And how sad, when a life has no plot of its own.

Anything and everything by Gloria Steinem. You will be surprised how cheerful and calm and funny she is, and how relevant her work remains.

While we’re on classics, and because any feminist book list has to also be for kids or all is lost: HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh. Harriet was a great hero of my childhood, whom I tried to emulate in many ways.

Katha Politt and Roxane Gay for political social context and unabashed opinions, fully uncovered. These are strong clear voices for NOW that I admire.

Kay Ryan, Rita Dove, Carolyn Forche, Naomi Shihab Nye, and my dear friend Chana Bloch (whose poem was in the New York Times last week) for from-the-heart poetry finely, courageously wrought. I continue to feel that poetry cuts to the core like nothing else. A feminist reading list has to be a source of truly honest, even brash women’s voices to listen to while trying to discover one’s own.

Anna Akhmatova and Wislawa Szymborska, who both honed the clarity of their poetic voices under crushingly repressive, silencing regimes, forever demonstrating how urgent and necessary it is to do so. Add to this, Dahlia Ravikovitch, who dared to act as a poetic conscience exposing her country’s cruelties, and the humanity of their “enemy.”

Fiction: I love Tea Obreht, Sandra Cisneros, and Jesmyn Ward; couldn’t possibly get enough of any of them. Short stories: probably Robin Black, and Karen Russell, who seems guileless about her creative genius, and thus undaunted. And of course, the greats, role models all: Deborah Eisenberg and Edith Perlman, with Alice Munro sitting above them on a throne.

I can’t even begin to list memoirists here or I’d go on for pages. But I’d begin with our beloved Mark Doty. Yes, a man on a feminist reading list. There is a mixed gender quality to an honest gay voice on the page that comes clear when so beautifully honed. I think it vital to read with empathy, to understand that to a degree there is a mixed gender quality in most of us, to allow the same to resonate within ourselves, and walk away changed.

BB: You have no idea whom we’ll talk to for the next Brazos Q&A, but never mind that: What should we ask them?

LL: Ask them if they knew what they were getting themselves into when they decided to write their book. Ask them what came by surprise, and how the unexpected changed them, and how it changed their view of the world.

BB: And tying in wonderfully with the emotion of UNCOVERED, Lauren Holmes, author of BARBARA THE SLUT AND OTHER PEOPLE, wants to know: What was the last thing that made you laugh so hard that you cried, choked, peed, whatever?

LL: Thank you for taking me to a recent, hilarious, gasping, double-me-over-with-laughter intimate moment with my wife—the particulars of which there’s no way I would post on a website.

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Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home Cover Image
ISBN: 9781631529955
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: She Writes Press - August 28th, 2015

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