1st Place Winner for Memoir in the Wordwrite Book Award Contest, 2016
Reviewed by James Knight
Leah Lax’s stunning memoir, spanning forty-plus years of her life, from her searching teens in the turbulent ‘70s to her rebirth in the first decade of the twenty-first century, begins, appropriately, in a moment of transformation: her marriage, when she abandons life as “Lisa,” child of decidedly liberal Reform parents—“hoarding artist mother and mentally ill father”—and becomes Leah, “Hasidic woman.” Though she fails to feel the “wonder moment of recognition” at the sight of her contractually betrothed—stable, doctrinaire Levi—she is “gleeful” before her mirrored reflection the day after the wedding. It’s just such moments of affecting ambivalence, most rendered in the intimate immediacy of the present tense, that organize a narrative of astonishing honesty and admirable (at times saintly) equanimity.
As Lax’s journey takes her from college student flirting with orthodoxy, “part of a wave across campuses all over the country,” to mother of seven immured by Hasidic Law, the narrative of events is superseded by a psychodrama of self-discovery. Despite sixteen-year-old, pre-conversion Lisa’s public chastisement for daring to sing with the men at a week-long Hasidic experience program, despite her mother’s barking “Orthodoxy is mind control,” to Lisa “Orthodoxy…means mothers who are mothers and fathers who are fathers,” for she “was beginning to sense the self-assuredness that might come from their rules, the nobility of purpose in them, the sense of mission.” And Lisa’s abiding wish to find “home”—understood here as a constellation of self-identity, capacity to love, and worthiness to be loved—amid the expectations and impositions of God, Law, and the watchful Hasidic community is very nearly fulfilled—she’s good at following the rules, at playing the part, sometimes distressingly good.
Soon, however, the tension between Lisa-now-Leah’s attempt to find herself in her Hasidic mission and her increasing awareness of a latent self that has been stunted by the rigidity of her role—the “glass box” of Hasidic law, the “airless box” of her house, and, most stultifying, the “boxes we put ourselves in”—becomes the engine of a narrative that derives its considerable power by deftly dramatizing the centrifugal expansion of an irrepressible identity straining against the centripetal pull of custom and Law.
As Leah outwardly immerses herself ever more deeply in Hasidic life, her inner self, as if in response to the overwhelming pressure of being what she is not, takes shape. Leah begins to accept that her teenage infatuation with friend Ana, who, after dabbling, ultimately rejects Hasidism, is properly understood as what it always was—an erotic expression of Leah’s true sexual identity. However, this burgeoning self-awareness is driven not only by what she’s uncovering about herself but by what the world outside of Hasidism won’t let her ignore.
Like an ever-intensifying backbeat thrumming behind the main narrative, the events of the wider world compel Leah’s attention. The Patty Hearst trial, the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, the destruction of the Twin Towers—the world keeps reminding Leah that ritual, custom, and costume are no defense against life’s insults and outrages, that she will forever be “jerked over a wall into the American community.” What’s more, sometimes the wall proves permeable; the outrages enter: Levi is diagnosed with lymphoma, and for a time, Leah must once again subjugate her will to the demands of a role—this time, “cancer wife.”
When chemo takes Levi’s beard, Leah comes to see that “Cancer changes everything,” that the Law is nothing when “life is at stake.” Here, the uncovering alluded to in the title is revealed as manifold: The demands of coping with cancer lay bare the emptiness of a life constructed of symbols. This realization, coupled with Leah’s growing resistance to her role—slipping off to study writing under the mentorship of Rosellen Brown and Daniel Stern, shedding her Hasidic “costume,” regrowing her hair—offers Leah glimpses of another way of being: “what if even when our lives are not cancer lives, what if then hair and clothes and food were only hair and clothes and food, and not binding symbols of connection to God, and not the outlines of boxes we put ourselves in?”
It would be a disservice to future readers of Lax’s memoir to reveal too much of what Leah experiences in her attempts to answer her own question, in her return to life outside of Hasidism, in her finding “home.” Still, I can’t help but share one final moment, one of the most moving in a memoir alive with moving moments: Leah, a guest of Rachel Adler’s at a liberal synagogue, “grasps” for the first time the “Torah’s wooden handles” with her “forbidden woman’s hands.” Of course, this is more than a lump-in-the-throat moment for your reviewer; it’s a self-defining moment for Leah, at once epiphanic and transcendent. Though Leah concedes that “It was Hasidic life that taught me to build a convincing world through imagination alone,” she urges her “covered sisters” that “to get the best of religion,” they “Take the wisdom, inspiration, and beauty and leave the rest.” Good advice for all.
James Knight is a writer, teacher, and editor. You can read his musings on KarmaKindler.com. He served as Chair of the Wordwrite Book Award Memoir Committee for 2016.