BOOK REVIEW

Pittsburgh native Vincent's 'Cut Me Loose' is compelling tale of leaving ultra-Orthodox life, but lacks heft


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Nothing prepared the family of Rabbi Kaplan for a daughter like Leah. Headstrong, independent-minded, intelligent, yearning to escape her suffocating life, Leah Kaplan appeared in the midst of her 10 brothers and sisters like some visitor from another planet, a planet that one might call "Modernity."


"CUT ME LOOSE: SIN AND SALVATION AFTER MY ULTRA-ORTHODOX GIRLHOOD"
By Leah Vincent.
Nan A. Talese ($25.95).

Although the family lived in 21st-century Pittsburgh, the lives they led were more similar to the hypertraditional village culture of some Third World country. Completely controlled by men wielding their powerful arsenal of domination, suspicion, intimidation, surveillance and restriction over their wives, families and each other, the Kaplans are Yeshivish, the most radically conservative of all Jewish Orthodoxy.

"Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood" has all the hallmarks of the classic redemptive narrative: our heroine severs herself from previous life (and vice versa), ventures into a strange world, interacts with unsettling characters, has awful adventures, loses her innocence (often), suffers, flirts with death and triumphs over all the heartache, the alienation, the loneliness with a Harvard acceptance letter and a great boyfriend. How could we not root for a girl like this?

As a Yeshivish rabbi, Ms. Vincent's father's major role in life was to ponder the centrality of the ancient legal texts, guide others as they do the same and dominate and belittle her mother.

Her mother, married at 18, cooked, bore many children, kept everyone and everything clean and kosher, all the while suffering in silence the contempt and occasional verbal abuse from her husband. This model of home life is replicated for generations.

Enforcing this world within the corrupting influence of American culture might not be easy, but it is possible. Should anyone dare to push the boundaries, question authority or blunder into a shockingly independent act, the consequence is exile. Leah was guilty of all of the above, and her descriptions of the Yeshivish world are vivid and unsettling.

Leah, who's now 32, adored her father and treasured the crumbs of affection that he occasionally scattered in her direction. Her father, she writes, was more "effusive" than her exhausted and withholding mother. "Every Friday night after blessing the children, he would place one careful kiss on the top of each of our heads. Sometimes, as rarely and spontaneously as a sun shower, he would pause behind my chair and gift my head with an unearned kiss." Tevye would not consider this effusive.

Leah's trajectory of alienation from her family begins when she started showing some independence and intellectual curiosity at 16. She was shipped off to the Manchester Seminary in England, where girls could finish their religious education and then find a husband by 18.

Hormones intervened, as did fate, and a crush on the good-looking brother of one of her friends becomes the first of her many sins. Off she went to Israel, for more stultifying education. She writes the boy she left in England, confessing some of her confusion about the restrictions of their religion. The letters are discovered, and the stain on Leah's reputation spreads from England to Israel to Pittsburgh.

After a year in Jerusalem, 17-year-old Leah is sent to Brooklyn. There were thousands of Yeshivish girls there, and Leah settled in the basement apartment of a neighbor's cousin, and a job in Manhattan as a secretary at Sunshine Bags.

Contrary to the parental plan, she avoids the Yeshivish community and hangs around a Brooklyn basketball court. She lost her virginity to a drugged-up Rastafarian who gave her a massive sexually transmitted disease that resulted in her first hospital stay.

Thus Leah's life begins to collapse. With shocking brutality, her family simply cuts her off. Desperate for some attention and affection from men, she embarks on a series of debased affairs. She married a man named Vincent because he needed a green card and changed her name.

Still a Yeshivish girl in her aspirations, she believes and hopes that each pathetic encounter might bring her a stable marriage and a baby. To relieve her awful anxiety, she starts cutting herself, hence the double meaning of the book's title. At a low point she attempts suicide, which lands her in the psych ward. Yet, some engine of ambition pushes her, and she applies to Brooklyn College, gets a scholarship and thrives academically.

After a harrowing episode during which she attempts the new career path of high-priced prostitute -- more demeaning sex, this time for $60 -- Leah emotionally collapses. Like any such narrative, helper figures appear, but they are always trying to get into the shorts she now wears instead of the long Yeshivish skirts.

Thus the inevitable affair with her much older, married, needy yet caring professor occurs. He may be Harold to his wife and colleagues, but Leah needs a dad so she calls him Pupa. In keeping with her brutally honest memoir persona, Ms. Vincent spares few details about their sexual encounters, and it is difficult to decide for whom to feel more embarrassed. (Spoiler alert: She has large breasts.)

Of course, Harold's wife finds out, and her attack on Leah is reminiscent of all the hysterical meanness that Leah has experienced from her sister and her mother. Harold served an important purpose, however, by forcing her to think about the future.

She applies to graduate school at Harvard, where she is accepted. The book ends after Leah attends a support group for recovering Yeshivishs and meets a guy who eventually becomes her husband and father to her child.

So what's not to like? A plucky heroine. A happy ending. More sex than "Fifty Shades of Grey"? While it is impossible not to admire her achievements, the satisfaction of reading such memoirs requires a narrator one not only trusts but likes.

Ms. Vincent's friendless isolation becomes not just a part of her difficult story, but a key to what is wrong with the telling of it. The excess of exhibitionistic self-revelation without the important ballast of personal insight gives her narrative all the heft of a reality show. It is difficult to change the channel, but the end comes as a relief.

 


Marianne Szegedy-Maszak is the author of "I Kiss Your Hands Many Times: Hearts, Souls, and Wars in Hungary."

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