Leah Vincent, Deborah Feldman, and Our Cultural Fascination With Orthodox Jewish Memoirs

Memoirs are a minefield for everybody involved. In these post-James Frey times, authors often have to deflect accusations of fibbing or embellishing facts. Readers, meanwhile, risk learning that any given memoir could be penned by somebody who just isn’t a very good writer, and they’ve wasted hours trying and failing to pry open an oyster in hopes of finding a great big pearl. I enjoy a good memoir if done properly, but tend to be skeptical of them unless I’m familiar with the writer’s work or particularly interested in their story. Let’s face it: there are a whole lot of bad memoirs out there.

That’s why I was wary of Leah Vincent’s Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood. Upon hearing the book described in its press materials as “a young woman’s promiscuous and self-destructive spiral after being cast out of her ultra-Orthodox Jewish family” and compared to Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation and Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, I mumbled something like “hell no.” I’d already been down that road a few years earlier with the bestselling memoir by Deborah Feldman, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots, and before that, Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament. I’d read more than my share of books about life in and out of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world, and couldn’t bring myself to read another.

While I respect Auslander as a writer, his memoir now looks like the opening salvo in a career built on tearing down the community that raised him, through both his fiction and his essays about God and growing up religious, and in his use of genocide as a comedic crutch. It seemed brave at first, but the trick has worn really thin since 2008. I should have known that if I was tired of Auslander, then I was really going to have a difficult time with Feldman’s book.

unorthodoxAnd I did. I tried my best to be on Feldman’s side, knowing through friends, family, and my own spouse (who grew up attending an Orthodox yeshiva) just how difficult the world of not just Orthodox Judaism, but any religion, can be for women. Her decision to leave that world was one I couldn’t imagine being faced with, and her bravery should be commended, but the book just wasn’t good. It was difficult to shake the funky feeling I got from reading it; as the title suggested, the memoir was meant to be scandalous. No matter how hard it was to turn her back on her strict upbringing, and no matter how much Feldman could say that she just needed to let the world know her story, the book smacked of exploitation. It was interesting to the public not because Feldman is an especially gifted or insightful writer, but because she comes from a very closed community that people are curious about.

Despite my response to it, Unorthodox was a success. It sold a lot of copies, and Feldman went on The View to talk about the book. It did so well that a sequel, Exodus, is due out in March. Feldman’s publisher is obviously hoping that lightning will strike twice, that the mainstream, Judeo-Christian American reader is hungry for even more behind-the-scenes knowledge of the Hasidic community — knowledge that many Hasids would rather the public not have access to.

Penina Roth (who disagrees with me about Auslander’s book, which she calls “brilliantly written”) is something of an authority on this topic. A member of the ultra-Orthodox community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, she’s also the organizer of New York’s most popular ongoing literary event, the Franklin Park Reading Series. One of the most open-minded people I know on the subject of literature, Roth says, “I’ve found the anti-Orthodox memoirs I’ve read to be negative, slanted and narrow-minded.” She also judges many of the books documenting the post-Orthodox life to be, “in many cases, of sub-par literary merit.”

Matthue Rot
Matthue Roth

The journeys in these memoirs have a name in their communities of origin.  Religious Jews call it going “off the derech.” This literally means that the person has gone “off the path” of righteousness; they no longer keep kosher, they’re dating gentiles, they’re driving cars on Shabbat, etc. Feldman and Auslander have both made their livelihoods telling their off the derech tales — and there’s nothing wrong with that. They’re writers, and that’s what writers do. They find something they can write about, and they go with it.

Matthue Roth (no relation to Penina Roth) — whose latest book, My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, and Giant Bugs, is the kind of children’s story that adults love — wrote a different sort of Orthodox memoir, Yom Kippur a Go-Go. Described as a “mind-blowing meeting of pop culture, Orthodox faith, and hipster poetics,” Roth’s story is basically the opposite of what Auslander and Feldman have done. Despite the peyos (side locks) and yarmulke that identify him as a Hasid, he dresses more like the kind of guy you would skateboard with than the type you’d meet at synagogue. With his head and heart in the Hasidic world, Roth also celebrates his secular tastes throughout his memoir, striking a balance between his old-time religious beliefs and modern-world interests, from poetry to hip hop. Warm and friendly, Roth isn’t disparaging about books like Feldman or Auslander’s. He takes a more philosophical stance, observing, “They’re compelling in the same way that any story of someone running away or coming to a new place is — they’re both of the paradigms of what every story is: someone leaves an old town, a stranger comes to a new town.”

Leah Vincent

Like Roth’s own story, Vincent’s Cut Me Loose is different from Auslander’s and Feldman’s stories. Like those authors, Vincent is no longer part of the Orthodox community she grew up in (she smartly makes the distinction between Yeshivish, Hasidic, and Modern Orthodox at the beginning of the book), where her father served as a well-known and respected rabbi. But her book goes beyond the tale of how she survived rape, physical self-abuse, attempted suicide, and selling her body on Craigslist (“Having rejected the laws of my upbringing, I had adopted few morals. Sex was not sacred to me…I did not pause over the dangers of prostitution”) after being thrown into the secular world with no moral compass to guide her, to analyze how she overcame her past and was eventually accepted to Harvard. Vincent doesn’t sensationalize what happened to her; she’s more concerned with writing about how she reclaimed what belonged to her all along — freedom, agency, self-sufficiency.

This is what separates her tale from most of the Orthodox memoirs I’ve read: it’s as thoughtful and heroic as it is gripping and tragic. Her downward spiral may have begun with her family shunning her in Israel, when she was a teenager, for buying “immodest clothing,” but Vincent’s story isn’t one that stops at inviting readers to gawk at the strange customs of a community that’s foreign to them. She suffered and strove, and is now succeeding, despite the many obstacles that might seem strange to anybody not acquainted with Orthodox laws and traditions. As the founder of the organization It Gets Besser, whose aim is “to counter the myth that people who leave ultra-Orthodox Judaism can’t have happy and healthy lives,” her motives for writing her memoir clearly go beyond building a personal brand.

No matter how it is positioned by her publisher, it’s those values that make Cut Me Loose so riveting and relatable. Vincent’s book may not accomplish the impossible task of speaking to the Orthodox (or post-Orthodox) experience as a whole, but it does tell her story in a way that familiarizes, rather than exoticizes, the life she’s led. As a result, it’s the finest example of this sort of memoir yet.