I just finished reading Covered by Leah Lax, a fascinating, courageously honest, and important account of the author’s experience of joining a Hasidic sect as a teenager, entering into an arranged marriage, having seven children, and finally emerging from that world as a lesbian writer in a committed relationship. What most impressed me about this unforgettable book is Lax’s devotion to the truth and the way love, even for those who have mistreated her, infuses it. Definitely recommended!
I’m also rereading Unorthodox and Exodus by Deborah Feldman, the continuing account of a young woman born into the Satmar Hasidic sect in New York. Feldman is also unflinchingly honest, a great writer, and committed to following the truth wherever it may lead. People with these kinds of inclinations find it hard to remain in fundamentalist religious communities and must struggle mightily to find lives in the greater world, but when they share their experiences, thoughts, and self-forged values, we’re all richer for it. The bottom line seems to be, as my experience has also taught me, that there’s no one truth or security to cling to. To be aligned with whatever greater reality is, we have to be open to it in each moment, fully engaging in experiences and relationships that amount to life as a work-in-progress. That takes honesty, courage, and passion, qualities Lax and Feldman possess in abundance.
A somewhat less expansive, but still fascinating male version of this coming-away-from-Hasidism story is All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen.
On the general subject of Jewish fundamentalism (bearing in mind that all religions have fundamentalist groups), I would also recommend the latest edition of Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel by Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky (2004). As one of its back cover blurbs indicates, it’s a “must-read for anyone interested in exploring the dark corners of an ideology that has an impact on international events.”
Go back to my October 26th post “A novel about the sexual abuse of children in a religious community” for my reviews of Judy Brown’s books, “Hush” and “This Is Not A Love Story,” too, for two more honest and evocative windows into the world of Hasidism. Brown deals with the way sexual abuse of children is covered up in Hasidic communities, and Lax mentions a short story she wrote and published about the similar suppression of homosexuality. She was inspired to write it after hearing of the suicide of an ultra orthodox gay teenage boy in Israel.