A Conversation with Leah Lax, Author of Uncovered

Leah Lax's extraordinary new memoir is Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home. Lax, who is a lesbian, presents a rare and intimate account of a woman's life among the insular Hasidim, the Jewish ultra-orthodox, where she had an arranged marriage and raised many children.
10/22/2015 05:22 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2016

Leah Lax's extraordinary new memoir is Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home. Lax, who is a lesbian, presents a rare and intimate account of a woman's life among the insular Hasidim, the Jewish ultra-orthodox, where she had an arranged marriage and raised many children. Perhaps because she had to keep her hair and body covered, her voice and much that was essential about her muted as well, Uncovered, becomes a beautiful, lyrical exploration of the suppression that informs many people's lives and the paths they may seek to self-knowledge.

Booklist has given Uncovered a coveted starred review and placed it on two Top Ten lists. Lax is now traveling around the country reading and speaking about her work.

Julie R. Enszer: Leah, I reviewed Uncovered at Lambda Literary and I am thrilled to talk with you about this incredible memoir. In Uncovered, you talk about the secret beginnings of your writing life, writing fiction. In 2001, you won Moment Magazine's contest for your short story, "Berkeh's Story." What drew you from fiction into memoir?

Leah Lax: Nothing logical, but then, I think there's little that's logical in the inclination to write memoir. All too often a memoirist has been through something difficult only to discover that the only way to honestly convey his or her story is to sort of self-hypnotize and go through it again, while writing, no therapist present. I consider that re-traumatization while riding a tight wire, not catharsis, with no guarantee that the process will bring relief or even resolution. But my story was getting in the way, seeping into everything I wrote. I felt its uniqueness like an undertow. It kind of overtook me.

JRE: It seems to me a central metaphor that we use to describe changes that people make over the course of a life is breakage. For example, people write, I was once this (gay, Hasidic Jew, in a cult, married and happy--whatever the narrative is) and then I came to understand the truth so now I am this (gay, Hasidic, etc.) This narrative seems to appeal to people, but your memoir, Uncovered, fundamentally challenges it. Readers see through the book that you are one woman, one writing, thinking, feeling, and living through all of these different spaces. Can you talk about that a bit?

LL: When I first read your Lambda review of Uncovered, I walked around the house sobbing. I never expected anyone to get something that was so fundamental to my process and outlook that I'd never articulated it to anyone. In your review, you wrote that, unlike most memoirs, Uncovered is not an escape narrative, meaning, I don't depict myself as someone who escaped something bad and survived. Instead, at every stage of my story I show the complexity--good mixed into bad, bad in the good. At every stage, I show much that becomes part of me that I don't leave behind. It's just that, there were costs. When I finally saw those costs I knew where I had to go. That is, I wasn't saying, "This is the story of my past." I was saying, "This is who I am." To form the truest account I could manage, I had to gather pieces from every stage of my life into the picture I was drawing of myself without breaking (rejecting) them.

Part of how I conveyed that wholeness was through the shape of the book. I was trying to avoid the sense of looking through a train window at passing images, and so, I thought, weave. Show the past woven into now. Make it all of a piece.

Uncovered begins with my wedding, a Hasidic arranged marriage when I was nineteen. But I looped back to give that "present" its true complexity, using brief flashbacks and images--to the rabbi who paired us, my childhood with my artist mother, my secret dreams of myself as a boy, bearded Levi's "proposal" in a Sear's parking lot--and back to the present of the wedding through to its joyous conclusion. Then, back again, to a public school Texas kid meeting the Hasidim, and how it is that I fell in love with them.

Once I had built this layered picture of that girl under the wedding canopy, her past, her present, her secret dreams, her why, once you know her, I let the story move forward. But even then, I use recurring images and sounds to keep up the weave through the story of my adult years among the Hasidim: a ghost child in home-sewn shorts creeping down a dark hallway or climbing a cottonwood tree, the sounds of cello music, my father's grinding teeth, and my mother's nagging, all of it forming a single complex self who is the only true constant through the narrative. That's how we think, how we are--something happens and suddenly you're reminded of bits of the past, and those bits affect your sense of "now."

JRE: Do you feel pressure to deny, even demonize, your life in the Lubavitch community?

LL: I'm embarrassed to say yes, but yes. I'm way too much of a wanna please person, and out here in secular world I found myself weirdly surrounded by hunger for salacious details. Besides, I fled the Hasidim, and I glory in my freedom to dress, speak out in public, pursue my future, make my own decisions, etc. But once I got started writing, I couldn't picture the community where I spent thirty years and that formed my children and formed me in many ways in that two-dimensional way. That would have made me into an incomprehensible starry-eyed fool for barreling into that life. Instead, I had to become that girl again, smitten by her girlfriend, and remember what she felt was beautiful about the Hasidim, to justify the appeal to her. I had to trust the reader to see what she didn't want to see, what this was going to cost her.

Every now and then someone asks me, "After you left, how did those people treat you?" and it sounds as if they want me to vilify them. But Hasidim are people, just as varied as we are, and most were born there and know nothing else. If any of us were surrounded by such pressure to conform as they are, how would we respond? I try to summarize the complexity: the overarching voice of their Law, how some postured obedience (a bid for status) by shunning this lesbian apostate, the many who remained silent, dismayed, or confused, or secretly supportive, the few who dared contact me, the old friends who have gotten over it and now greet me with open arms and good memories--if we happen to run into one another, even though we both know the glass wall stands between us now, and that neither of us will ever call.

JRE: Even in interviews about the book, you draw connections among the many communities in your life. In the Lilith interview, you say, "Word is out [in Hasidic communities] that Uncovered is complete fiction. There will be repercussions. I will have to deal with them." You affirm for readers that you are living one life and always responding to its consequences. These connections seem crucial in your story--and have big political effects. How did you learn to stay with the difficult times?

LL: Learn? I do so with such a thrill! After all, I spent thirty years defined by a fictional ancient past, living for others, through others. What a thrill to be here and be myself in this "difficult" present! At nearly sixty, so few years left, I won't let anything pull me back exclusively into the past, even writing a memoir.

I tend to visualize my life as a Venn diagram of many circles. This kind of depiction is naturally political, naturally global and interconnected. Which is why in Uncovered I also had to show events in those outer circles, how those moments that riveted the national consciousness affected us Hasidim: the Challenger explosion that pulled us over the metaphoric glass wall into a "national pool of feeling," the dismantling of the Berlin wall that seemed so symbolic of what I secretly wished for my children, Rostropovich flying to Berlin to play his cello at Checkpoint Charlie after the wall came down, the music elegiac and profound.

JRE: You continue to work among multiple communities--living openly as a lesbian, being a Bubbe to grandchildren living in Hasidic communities, being a writer and engaging in literary communities. How do you see yourself doing that work?

LL: Let's just say that raising seven children born close together prepared me for juggling a lot of very different things at once. But I only commit to projects that feel genuinely me. Sincerity and alignment give me a lot of the energy I need.

JRE: How can we promote this kind of connective, empathic work more in our worlds?

LL: Although I had "friends" among the Hasidim, we didn't dare share the messy contradictory parts of our lives with one another, our truths. We couldn't possibly reveal our differences, when conforming was everything. With no one to confide in, I wrote their secrets (and mine) into my first fiction stories. It was a socially dangerous act, but also an expression of empathy for the secrets my friends had to carry alone. (I used to print out, delete, and hide the pages under my bed.)

Which is why I think we can only foster empathy through mutual sharing of true and honest stories that acknowledge both the good and the bad, the resolved and unresolved.

JRE: I said in my review that in Uncovered "something new is afoot." Uncovered brings a new way of understanding the world into being. As a reader it is extraordinary to encounter a book that does that work, but as a writer, it is tough to do that work. Can you talk about some moments in your writing process when you realized that you were doing something new and how you pressed on and sustained that work?

LL: I knew only that I was doing something new for myself, pushing for a multi-dimensional truth that was clear and physical. I think the best reading is vicarious experience, and I had to make that experience real. I think, hope, that reading Uncovered is not an intellectual experience but a visceral one.

Not long after Hurricane Katrina, I went with my wife to a New Orleans Mardi Gras. The floats all depicted wry jokes about things like evacuation routes, funky refrigerators, and dishonest politicians. One of the marchers was handing out sealed envelopes and telling people, "Your FEMA check has arrived!" Another, in a HAZMAT suit, handed revelers gray/green rubber rats with the words "lying rat" painted on the side.

I had also lost my home, also lived in an aftermath. I took that defiant truth and optimism home with me, and kept my rat at my side all through writing my memoir. I had been told so many lies. We tell ourselves so many lies. The rat and I, we did our best to confront them.

JRE: As a writer, how do you continue to cultivate the new, the undiscovered, the reaching?

LL: I just keep writing. When I'm in that groove, I listen closest to the quietest voices and rarely question what comes up spontaneously, because those subterranean impulses are unhampered by expectations of form.

JRE: What do you like to read? What books inspire you?

LL: I love books that transcend form: fiction that is poetry, its rhythm and sound important to the story, and poetry that tells a story in its own way, and memoir that grounds the narrative in the larger place and in history.

Who inspires me? An eclectic bunch: Virginia Woolf, J. M. Coetzee, Wislawa Szymborska, Jose Saramago, Rita Dove, Edith Pearlman, Rabih Alameddine, Jesmyn Ward, Kazuo Ishiguro, Patti Smith. I better stop now.

JRE: What are you at work on now?

LL: A libretto based on Uncovered for a composer who wants to make my story into a chamber opera. A novel that is as impossible to categorize as my memoir and will probably be just as hard to get published. And a collection of monologues from refugees that the announcement of the latest Nobel winner, Svetlana Alexievich, has motivated me to try again to sell.

JRE: Is there anything else you would like to add?

LL: I want to thank you for celebrating exactly what makes my career challenging--the way my work defies categorizing.

By the way, Barnes & Noble made Uncovered available to local bookstores for special order by putting the book in its warehouses but they did not "model" it, that is, assign a category/bookshelf, which prevents Uncovered from appearing on their shelves. Most of the market for Uncovered is online.

The bright spot: the LA Times Book Award committee and the American Library Association have requisitioned Uncovered for consideration for two literary prizes each.

What a roller coaster ride.