Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood by Leah Vincent. New York: Penguin Books, 2015. 225 pp. $16.
Reading Cut Me Loose was painful. The story of this young ultra-Orthodox (she uses the term “Yeshivish”) woman’s degradation was so powerful, so sad that at times I had to take empathy breaks from reading. Maybe it’s because I’m the father of three daughters, but for whatever reason, I found the book emotionally draining.
But I felt compelled, each time, to return.
This is the story of a young woman, raised in an ultra-Orthodox cocoon and unprepared to live outside it, who claims she was exiled by her family to Brooklyn to live by herself in a small apartment and survive in a minimum-wage job.
I condemn what her parents did to her. But, I understand that in a sense, they had no choice. They believed that modernity with its corrupting temptations and vices must be kept out of their community.
To accomplish that in our ultra-transparent world requires not flexibility but utter rigidity. Let’s face it: The 21st century has many temptations.
Television poses a grave risk not to mention the Internet and social media. Even going outside the confines of the family home is fraught with danger.
Vincent smacked that proverbial nail on its head when she wrote in the author’s note at the beginning of the book: “If a Yeshivish Jew questions his or her path, it is more than a personal upheaval –a break with character threatens the whole tableau.”
Although her transgression may seem to us trivial – she was caught writing letters to a boy who was neither a blood relative nor her betrothed – it is a serious sin in the highly gendered-segregated world of the ultra-Orthodox. And her actions could set a dangerous precedent.
Her parents rightly understood that such behavior could be contagious. Not only did she have many sisters and brothers who might be corrupted, but her father was a rabbi and a leader in the Pittsburgh ultra-Orthodox community, whose children, if you’ll excuse the cross-religious reference, had to be holier than the pope.
In New York and cut off from everyone and everything she had known, the young woman is overwhelmed by her loneliness. “I had been a quiet child in a noisy family, a nerdy outcast in high school …. I was used to loneliness,” Vincent writes. “But this was different. Masses of New Yorkers swarmed by me on the street and on the subway as if I were invisible. My emotions built up within me, ricocheting without release.”
Searching for companionship and love, she descends into a life of promiscuity, even trying prostitution – at least for one customer. She moves into the secular world, marrying Blaze Vincent, a British rock musician, to keep him from being deported.
Finally, Vincent decides to enroll in Brooklyn College.
By so doing, she had broken through another barrier. “For Yeshivish Jews, higher education was forbidden. … Scholarship in the Yeshivish community was restricted to Talmudic scholarship and practiced only by men,” she writes.
She is frightened by the thought of secular learning. “Would I lose my love of God if I went to college? Would college pull me further into a spiral of self-destruction? Would I end up lying in the gutter, looking back on this decision with bitter regret?”
She perseveres, overcoming adversities, including a stay in the mental ward of a hospital, earning a bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College and a master’s from Harvard University.
And she falls in love with and marries a lapsed ultra-Orthodox Jew.
It sounds like a Hollywood ending – but not quite, for Vincent writes that she has distanced herself from God and Judaism.
One could consider this outcome a vindication of her parents, who had warned their daughter just such a thing would happen. I’m not willing to do so. I find her saga sad, and her fate avoidable. Millions of other Jews have found a way to adapt their faith to the 21st century, after all.
For his part, her father issued a statement to the media after the book’s release saying that his daughter “… does not, or perhaps is not able to, separate her imaginings from the facts.”
Notwithstanding this explanation, I find the author’s story credible. If I’m wrong, then Leah Vincent should be considered among the most compelling fiction writers working today.
Aaron Leibel’s novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.