Sin and Salvation After an Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood

Monday, February 03, 2014

Author Leah Vincent writes about her Ultra-Orthodox childhood in her book Cut Me Loose. (Amazon)

Leah Vincent talks about being ostracized from the Yeshivish community she grew up in. When she was 16, she was caught exchanging letters with a male friend, a violation of in the community, and she was kicked out of her fundamentalist sect of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. In her new memoir Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood, she tells of her struggle to define herself as an individual and confront the world of religious fundamentalism.


Leah Vincent

Comments [32]

lassas1 from Brooklyn, NY

Bravo! Leah Vincent is terrifically brave. All I can say is BRAVO. It takes tremendous bravery to speak one's own truth.

Feb. 06 2014 02:31 PM
Gerald Fnord from Palos Verdes, Ca

Has Ms Vincent considered that in veering toward suicide and dissolution she was following the script given her by her community as thoroughly as if she had stayed within the fold?---all cultures tell us how to be 'bad people' as well as they tell us how to be 'good people', and her story reminds me of what raised-Orthodox women have recounted to me as being what they were told would become of them if they were to leave.

Fundamentalists seemingly must label the universe outside of their sphere of control as being chaotic and evil and without any real merit, up to and often including notional eternal after-lives...I'm afraid that any product that is successfully promoted as the only alternative to eternal torment will become a shoddy product even if it doesn't start as such, as there's no way (Inquisitions and ostracisms included) they can be as bad as the supposed alternative....

So, again, I ask to what extent Ms Vincent came close to realising the sort of self-destruction her childhood faith in fact demanded of her under the circumstances.

Feb. 05 2014 04:10 PM
Renee from Montclair, N.J.

As a reseacher in Comparative Religious Thought, I must say that Ms. Vincent's experiences are unfortunately too much the norm in much of the religious right (Jewish or otherwise). Stop victimizing the victim, folks; is the truth too close for comfort?!!!!!

Feb. 05 2014 08:33 AM

I hope that Leah has come to a place where she can see that her experience is not a reflection of Judaism, but rather as others have pointed out, of an abnormal family dynamic. Throwing a 16 year old out to fend for herself is crazy, no matter what community. Jewish observance can be a world of wonder, warmth, and joy.

I am not so foolish/naive to think that these intolerant attitudes are uncommon in the Yeshivish world. I live in Midwood/Flatbush, surrounded by many Yeshivish Jews, and have had their children ask my son if he is really Jewish despite seeing him/us returning from synagogue on Saturday. We are modern orthodox, I don't wear a wig, and do wear slacks, so I do not fit into their world's view of observant Jew. I do, however, see that there are those who will wish me a "good Shabbos" and make eye contact with me, and those who ignore my existence. More the pity for their Yiddishe Neshamas. It is sad that her community taught them to look at the world around them as a threat to Judaism, and not allow for different expression of love of Torah and mitzvot. But it is most important to realize that to categorize one sect as "Them" and another as "Us" is to endanger Judaism at its most deep soul, and ensure that the Beit Mikdash will not be rebuilt. Sin'at chinam--baseless hatred of a fellow Jew is what brought about the destruction of The Temple.

We all need to be open to allow for Hashem's love of all Jews. I hope that Leah, and all those around me that see me as one of "Them" will open their hearts to Jews who are not like themselves. We should all learn to eat some humble pie. Kosher, pareve, with a glayzele tea.

Feb. 04 2014 07:42 PM
Ben from NY

The intro text says that she got excommunicated for having communications with male, when in fact, the story says it was because she insisted on going to college.

Feb. 04 2014 07:16 PM

religion is mental illness.

Feb. 04 2014 02:38 PM
Kressel from Monsey, NY

Thank you, Elaine from Baltimore! I'm in the same boat.

To everyone else: obviously, Leah went through terrible difficulties, but there are many women like Elaine and me who were raised in the secular world and who chose to become Orthodox specifically because of the meat-market mentality of men in the secular world. I could write a pretty scandalous memoir about my own coming of age on a college dormitory, but I won't, partly to protect my own privacy, and partly because Wendy Shalit did such a brilliant job in A RETURN TO MODESTY.

Feb. 04 2014 12:18 PM
Carlos from Queens

all religion is stupid, with ignorance and tribalism at it's core. even a statement like "we jews have a crisis" exemplifies this. set yourself apart, claim you're superior, denigrate the "other"; it's a tried and true recipe.

Feb. 04 2014 11:25 AM
Esther from New York

What a beautiful girl. So much hope and life after such a degrading, shaming, punishing childhood by people who didn't know better. If they knew better they were full of so much fear. I grew up the same way and I am still terrified the roof will cave in if I am in a place that according to my childhood adults felt was for people going straight to hell. (movie theater, lecture hall, etc.)
Kudos to you for coming out and sharing your story you are very brave. I hope I have your bravery one day.

Feb. 04 2014 10:25 AM
Ben from NY

The fanatical cults of various Abrahamic religions would insist that they are so different from each other, but are in fact very similar.

Feb. 04 2014 10:05 AM

Thanks to all for their thoughtful comments. As one who lives in Monsey and attended a Modern Orthodox yeshiva as a kid, I can attest that there is a wide range of attitudes toward modernity in the Yeshivish world. In the Chassidish world, it’s different. Witness the “tsnius patrols” in Satmar neighborhoods, which harass and persecute entire families for perceived minor violations. See also how Ultra-Orthodox rabbis are bending over backwards to restrict the use of the Internet.

Nevertheless, there is always a conflict between religious fundamentalism (i.e., Biblical literalism) and modernity. How could there not be? No matter how narrowly or broadly the boundaries are drawn, it is always a case of “thus far and no farther.” For an example from another religious tradition, see the current Pope. He may say “Who am I to judge,” but can he change the rules? No. And why? Because “God said so.” That is always the bottom line for religious fundamentalists.

Personally, I find it sad that so many are constrained in what they may think, feel, and say - let alone do. To those who point to the warmth and wholesomeness of many Orthodox families and communities, I agree. But the price of admission is always staying within the boundaries, no matter how broadly or narrowly drawn.

Feb. 04 2014 08:29 AM
Debra from New Jersey

Of course she was troubled, this is why she is sharing "her" story, which is unique, but also shares commonality with others under such strict fundamental views.

Feb. 04 2014 08:04 AM
Pinny from Brkly ny

It is true that in the world of orthodox yeshivahs,it varies,I have known both kind,but equally the truth is,that orthodox judaism
Sees the extreem as the ideal,you can't be extreem enough when it comes to god.orthodox Judaism is traditionally hostile
To secular knowledge,for the obvious reason that it threatens the foundation of orthodoxy,even if there is an abundance of
Evidence to the contrary historically,especially in the golden age of Islam,when too many to count greats of Jewish orthodoxy
We're accomplished scientist,philosophers and mathematecaiand and doctors,to mention just the mimonides ,no serious
Orthodox Talmudical scholar could not mentioning him by the hour.but the elite of Talmudical scholarship don't want to hear any of that ,especially since enlightment in Europe they learned their lesson and since then ,they rather have anything to do,
More than anything with secular learning.i heard the show,I haven't yet read the book,but I heard the show,please believe me,
When you get to the world of serious orthodox Judaism,you exist in a differen state of mind and many things that you won't expect from a generally caring and loving person,can turn merciless and heartless,in the name of godand for the same reason
Kept under tight cover,after all you don't want to desecrate the name,so nothing comes out to the outside of the bobble.

Feb. 03 2014 11:31 PM
Joel from Rockland County

Having spent my adult life in the Yeshivish community I find the behavior of of Ms. Vincent's mother bizarre in telling her daughter to eat on paper plates. It is also mystifying that her desire to go to college in and of itself would create such volatile hostility. Many Yeshivish girl go to college and for that matter quite a few boys. Leah total insulation from boy girl interaction in an out of town community even for the daughter of a Rabbi is unusual. I lived in an out of town community in PA and all the daughters of the head of the local Yeshiva went to college and were in no way so cloistered. There is a lot more here than meets the eye and I have no doubt that a very troubled parent child relationship is more to blame for Leah's estrangement than religious dictates.

Feb. 03 2014 02:34 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

To Amy

Even if two lesbian women marry, if the Jewish one has a baby, the baby is considered Jewish if she gave birth to it.

Feb. 03 2014 01:27 PM

Another problem is that she, and other writers like her, paint her alleged experience as being typical of her group. However, such things vary. Other parents in her group, might have taken a different tack and not reacted so extremely (as alleged) to her adolescent rebellion.

I have read various memoirs of this type, which have proliferated in recent years. They are sad. They seem to follow a basic framework - young person abused in their backward religious group, rebels, breaks free, and ultimately succeeds after having moved on to a secular existence. They are feted by the secular community, who look to such accounts to justify their own lifestyles. Of course no two stories are the same, but much is similar. The script is growing old however.

If there are problems among some believers that doesn't mean that their faith is at fault. It may just rather be how they apply it. No need to throw out the baby with the bath water.

One wonders as well, how accurate the accounts are, and if they have been embellished to evoke horror and make the books more sensationalistic, as has been quite credibly charged in some past cases, in particular with regard to the Feldman book.

Hopefully the author will find true peace in the future.

Feb. 03 2014 01:21 PM
Amy from Manhattan

jgarbuz: That's not the issue. You said, "when *Jews* marry Jewish women," not "when Jewish *men* marry Jewish women"--as if Jewish women weren't also Jews.

Feb. 03 2014 01:14 PM
Elaine from Baltimore

As someone who grew up in the non-orthodox world and has chosen to become orthodox as an adult, I feel great compassion for Ms. Vincent. However, the orthodox umbrella is rather broad and varied. There is no halacha that I know of that prohibits writing letters with a male friend. One of the reasons I became orthodox is from the healthy family structure that I experienced in many homes. That doesn't mean there aren't any dysfunctional people. But I would venture to say, wholesome relationships, yes, wholesome, is what I witnessed along with moral values, an intense self-reflection that encourages internal growth and communities that offer incredible support that are unheard of in most communities.

Feb. 03 2014 01:08 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

To Amy

Jewish women are luckier (in a sense) in that their children are considered Jews under Jewish law no matter who the father is. In a sense, this is a concession to the women who otherwise are NOT supposed to be rabbis, study Talmud or otherwise take a leadership position but rather should attend to domestic matters of keeping a Jewish home and raising Jewish children. So being defined as a member of the tribe by matriliny kind of offsets that.

Feb. 03 2014 01:06 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

To Amy

Jewish women are luckier (in a sense) in that their children are considered Jews under Jewish law no matter who the father is. In a sense, this is a concession to the women who otherwise are NOT supposed to be rabbis, study Talmud or otherwise take a leadership position but rather should attend to domestic matters of keeping a Jewish home and raising Jewish children. So being defined as a member of the tribe by matriliny kind of offsets that.

Feb. 03 2014 01:05 PM

I really enjoyed Deborah Feldman's book and plan to check this one out. As a secular woman, I'm shocked that there are women in the US still enduring this type of treatment.

Feb. 03 2014 01:00 PM

This whole interview (and book presumably, haven't read it yet though), depicting 'Yeshivish' Judaism as extreme and backward is lacking in accuracy. While there are some extreme Yeshivish types that could fit in to such a story, others are quite educated, highly-educated graduates of prestigious universities. The author should, instead of painting with such a broad brush, be more honest and make her strokes more narrow.

Feb. 03 2014 12:58 PM
Amy from Manhattan


"when Jews marry non-Jewish women"

Do you realize you just described "Jews" as including only Jewish men & excluded Jewish women?

Feb. 03 2014 12:58 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I hope Ms. Vincent's situation at the time didn't delay her getting treated for the PID she contracted.

Feb. 03 2014 12:55 PM
john from office

Wow, does anyone keep secrets!?? She seems like a very troubled woman, aside from the religious issue.

Feb. 03 2014 12:55 PM
Sue from NY

Ashamed of their behavior, that is. Grotesque.

Feb. 03 2014 12:54 PM
Sue from NY

Ms. Vincent's parents should be ASHAMED.

Feb. 03 2014 12:53 PM
Sydney from UWS

Have you read Deborah Fedlman's book "Unorthodox: The scandalous rejection of my Hasidic Roots" ? If so, what do you think about it?

Feb. 03 2014 12:52 PM
Nick from UWS

She talks with a boy, and the response of her own family and community is to cast her out. Yeah, that's real constructive. Real supportive of family and humanistic values...makes total sense. Is there no aspect of life that is not twisted and ruined by the idiotic delusions of religion? The damage inflicted by religion to all people is incalculable.

Feb. 03 2014 12:48 PM
DavidG-NYC from nyc

"...she was caught exchanging letters with a male friend, a violation of religious law"...Please clarify what religious "law"

Feb. 03 2014 12:33 PM
Erin Ortandl

I was wondering if Leah ever read My name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok? If so, what are the correlations with her own experience?

Feb. 03 2014 12:29 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Jews dropping away from orthodoxy is fine. The problem for Jewry is when Jews marry non-Jewish women and have non-Jewish children and then we Jews have a crisis. But this is nothing new. Otherwise, the Jewish nation would be way too big to fit into tiny Israel. Then Jews would need a country the size of Germany just to fit into it.

Feb. 03 2014 12:29 PM

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