Uncovered by Leah Lax, 2015 348 pp, She Writes Press
This memoir is lyrical, poetic, and deeply truthful. Lax puts her life on the page so clearly, and with sensory detail that the reader comes away with a sense of having experienced the Hasidic life herself.
Leah Lax was born and raised a Reform Jew. In her early teens, she — like many young people in the early 1970s — rebelled by joining a radical religious group. In her case, it was the ultra-orthodox Hasidic sect. Ultimately, she left her family and friends behind in favor of a deeply religious practice. A marriage was arranged, and she immersed herself in providing the perfect home for her husband and [soon] seven children.
It wasn’t until the difficult seventh birth that the doctor advised her to never get pregnant again. And she did not want to. But life happens, and after only a few months, Lax was once again pregnant. The only way for her to get an abortion was to have her doctor tell her rabbi that her life would be in danger if she were to have another baby. She was able to persuade her doctor to do this, even though her doctor would not perform abortions due to personal beliefs. The rabbi told both her and her husband that she should have the abortion and never have another child, but he also told them never to tell anyone else.
The rabbi’s admonition was a catalyst for Lax to change her life. She began to question everything about her slavish belief in the religious laws that kept her trapped in a demanding role. Her life was programmed by the hour. She had given up reading fiction, writing, social interaction not related to religion, and any dream she ever had. She lived with a repressed sexuality, believing that her desire for women was something she could ignore forever.
Yet, one religious ritual stood out. The mikvah is a ceremony in which a married woman must submerge herself seven times in a pool, seven days after her last blood from menstruation. When she goes home afterward, she and her husband make love. Menstruation is considered unclean, so poisonous that men must be kept away from it. Brides also must do the mikvah prior to consummation of the marriage. Each woman must enter the pool alone, completely naked, with no jewelry, nail polish, and not even a stray hair. An attendant checks her body to ensure requirements are met.
Lax writes about the mikvah throughout the book, and the experience becomes a metaphor for her gradual escape from Hasidic life. At one point, she collaborated with the artist Janice Rubin to create The Mikvah Project, which included photographing women in the ritual, accompanied by interviews with women about their experiences and how the mikvah affects them.
It was only after her husband contracted cancer and survived it that Lax finally left her home and children and came out as a lesbian. She was surprised to learn that each of them already knew she was a lesbian. Four of her seven children have since left the Hasidic life, and she has good relationships with all her children and grandchildren.
Having lived for decades out of the “real world,” Lax knew little of day-to-day culture. She had lived without television or anything secular all of her adult life. It was her own innate courage that sent her to conferences where she met feminists who encouraged her to question and explore. The process took years, and in this memoir, we see that process, watch the gradual enlightenment that led to her uncovering.