My journey from Hasidic Jew to lesbian feminist

Date

Maggie Galehouse

Author Leah Lax reading from her memoir Uncovered.

Author Leah Lax reading from her memoir Uncovered. Photo: YouTube

In the early 1970s, just as second-wave feminism was hitting its stride, Leah Lax rebelled.

But instead of joining the stream of women eager to redefine their personal and public roles, Lax swam toward tradition and conservatism, choosing the devout spiritual life of a Hasidic Jew.

For three decades, she dressed modestly to please God, wearing a wig or scarf on her head and clothing that covered her legs, arms and body, right up to her neck. As a woman, she strove to accept that fulfillment would come through marriage and motherhood. At synagogue, she worshipped behind a partition with other Lubavitch women, separated from the congregation of men. She kept a kosher home.

The cover of Lax's memoir.

The cover of Lax's memoir.

"I was a very timid person," Lax recalled, her light-blue eyes lit by sunlight slanting into the home she shares with her wife. "I took refuge in a religion that promised me - more than anything - that I'd never be confused."

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Every month, seven days after she stopped menstruating, Lax visited a mikvah - a bath used by married women for ritual immersion. There, she washed away her impurity ("tumah" in Hebrew) and returned to a state of purity ("taharah"). After mikvah, sexual relations with her husband, Levi, could resume.

Lax had babies and more babies, seven in all, whom she nurtured and raised according to Hasidic Law.

Leah Lax is now an atheist, an LGBTI activist and a feminist.

Leah Lax is now an atheist, an LGBTI activist and a feminist.

Although Lax, now 59, was raised Jewish, her family had worked hard to distance itself from the "old ways". Growing up in her cluttered childhood home in Dallas, where an artistic but troubled mother and a mentally unstable father were too self-absorbed to nurture three daughters, Lax longed for escape.

In 1975, she entered an arranged marriage in the midst of her studies at the University of Texas-Austin. She was 19.

"... I was looking to the future," Lax writes in Uncovered, her new memoir. "Levi offered home. Safety. Order. Holiness. Shared faith in something beyond our family's hard scrabble. That's what had drawn me to the Hasidim."

But as the years passed, she struggled. Questioned. Bristled. Uncovered unspools those moments when light from a different kind of life peeked through the cracks of her rigid routine.

Lax dreamed she was a man, dreamed about the softness of women's bodies. Awake, she struggled to reconcile faith with logic. Decades passed. She went to the public library and checked out volumes of feminist poetry. She started writing stories and enrolled in writing classes at the University of Houston.

In one of those classes, professor Robert "Boz" Boswell taught her something that had a profound impact on her strained life.

"I had heard over and over again that all questions are answered in the Torah," Lax said. "That faith should drive you to meditation until you resolve the questions because the answers are there. That holiness is clarity. So one of the most important things that ever happened to me was hearing someone I respected say, 'No. That's not human. That's not real. And if you want to represent reality on the page, you have to understand that human nature embodies contradictions.' "

By the time Lax left the Hasidic community, she was having an affair with a woman named Jane, sneaking out of the house while her family slept. In Uncovered, Lax writes:

"Another day, another midnight, I edge open the back door and try to make sure it doesn't creak. I put the car into neutral and slide down the drive with the driver's-side door ajar. Once in the street, I ease the door closed and start the motor so that I could be anyone, a passing car that stalled, a Hasidic mother escaping to her lesbian lover.

Ultimately, Lax came clean with her family. She called her mother to say she was leaving her husband and the Hasidim.

"You're coming home!" her mother shouted into the phone.

"For me, I was coming home," Lax said. "My book is joyous in the end."

Lax dedicated Uncovered to her mother and to "covered women everywhere".

"I wanted this book to say something universal for women who have ever felt covered over in any way," the author said. "My secret dream is that there will be a trickle through covered women, who will buy my book and cover it with brown paper and read it at night and whisper about it to a friend."

Gloria Steinem helped set her straight. They became friends at a writing retreat, and Steinem gave Lax lists of books to read from the three decades she had missed. Steinem even named the memoir.

Today, Lax's youngest child is 25. Her oldest works for Google. Four of her children have left Hasidic life.

Lax said today's young Lubavitchers - members of the evangelical strain of Judaism - are getting bolder.

"They've got computers. They're getting on the Internet. I see them as way more sophisticated than we were. They're watching movies! I'm seeing the girls' skirts starting to creep up. They're not quite following the rules."

Rules are changing outside Hasidic life, too.

Lax married Susan Baird in Washington, D.C., this spring, a few months before the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage. And these days, Lax's spiritual life is decidedly less defined.

"I walk around like a kid in a candy shop most of the time," she said. "Like a country mouse in the city going 'Gaaw-ly!' I'm so into it - experience and being and meeting people and being out there - that this is my spiritual life.

"I'm almost 60 years old. I need to get every bit out of this Earth and these incredible people I get to meet. This is my spiritual life. I wake up every day next to the person I love most in the world."

Source: The New York Times