Sign Up for the Outsmart Newsletter
A Jewish lesbian’s 30-year journey into and out of an Hasidic community in Houston.
By Neil Ellis Orts
Leah Lax has a writing career that includes short stories, text for photography books, and the libretto for an opera—but her memoir of her life among Hasidic Jews, Uncovered, should make her a household name. It’s a beautifully and sensitively written story of finding herself in a very fundamentalist religious community, right here in Houston, while suppressing her own identity. This wasn’t just dabbling in religion—she was in the community for three decades. Gloria Steinem said of Lax’s book, “It’s been said that, if one woman told the truth, the world would split open. If others follow her, it just might.”
I met with Leah Lax at Inversion Coffee for an hour of fascinating conversation. What follows is only a small portion of what we covered, so I recommend putting her September 2 Brazos Bookstore appearance on your calendar. I seldom assert my own voice or opinion in my interviews, but this is a remarkable book. Read the interview, call Brazos to reserve your copy of Uncovered, and thank me later.
Neil Ellis Orts: You got involved with an Hasidic group while you were in college. So much of Uncovered is about finding a place to belong. Talk about finding that community.
Leah Lax: Let me address the college phenomenon first. I went to college in the early ’70s, and I was so acutely aware that what was going on on college campuses was going to spill out into our society and change the society. We were children of the ’60s generation. I think a lot of kids went off to college and wanted to rebel. How do you rebel against a liberal home? How do you rebel against no structure? In the early ’70s, the very serious and strict religious movements on campus were just burgeoning. On the two college campuses I was on, the religious organizations were just huge, thriving. There were all kinds of demonstrations on campus. The very conservative Christian organizations were huge. The right-wing Muslim demonstrators were screaming on campus, trying to take down the Shah. It’s like everybody I knew was finding a sense of belonging by joining a group that said, “We have the authority because we have ancient law and we’ve got scripture.”
When I was in college, I had a brief Roman Catholic period, and it was the same thing—Catholics have this ancient ritual that was very appealing.
And when you’re young, it’s mysterious and awesome and bigger than you are and carries way more authority than your little voice. I totally fell for it.
I was reading Uncovered at the time of the recent Waco biker gang shootings, and all the NPR news items were about why people join bike clubs. It echoed so much of what I was reading in your book, how you were looking for a place to belong…
[I feel] different from everyone in the world, there’s no one like me, and here’s a place where they tell me the rules of belonging. So even if I felt different, I could follow the rules! I knew I could! And then I’d be like everybody else! So being gay, at a subliminal level—which I think is all through my book—was pushing me into it on one hand, because I always felt different and very alone. On the other hand, the very, very religious communities are homoerotic like crazy. It’s inadvertent, but they separate the men from the women, so the men gather together and the women gather together and they’re really intimate and really open with one another. The Hasidic men, they kiss one another, they dance, even in couples. They put their arms around each other and dance. The women, they massage each other’s shoulders, and they’re all in each other’s lives.
And the bathing rituals! [The mikvah is a bathing ritual explained in Uncovered.]
And that, too! Right! [Laughs]
Do you still have children who live in the Hasidic community?
Of my seven, three of them are still very much in the Lubovitch Hasidic community. They’re not in Houston, though.
Do you maintain a relationship with them?
Very much so.
And your ex-husband?
My ex is still here in Houston. When I left that community, I was shunned. People would cross the street, or move to another aisle in the grocery store—stuff like that. He never did that. We forgave each other because he understood. We lived together. He redeemed himself in many ways. I hope we redeemed ourselves, for the sake of our kids.
I didn’t give my children a choice about maintaining a relationship, but it was rocky, because they were older teens and young twenty-somethings. They were embarrassed. The ones still in the community felt really betrayed. “You raised me this way, this is who I am, and then you go ‘Oops, I made a mistake.’ Am I a mistake?” It was hard on them. But I never answered those questions. I just said, “I’m Mom and I’m still here and I’m not pretending.” So I show up at their door, even in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, the heart of the Lubavitch Hasidic community, looking like I do now in blue jeans and tennis shoes—but [I’m] like, “Give me that baby! I know what to do with babies. I’ll babysit, you go meet your girlfriend at the coffee shop. You need a break.” It’s like that, so you know, we’re good. There’s some rocky pieces to it, but there always are in relationships with young adults. But I think the basic love is very strong.
I want to say something about storyline, if I can. In a normal piece of fiction, it’s all event, decision, action. For example, you have this guy in a novel and something happens and he has to decide to do something. He makes a decision and acts on it, and there are repercussions. So he winds up making another decision and acts, and if you were to draw a line, tracing those actions, that’s the plot. He wakes up and goes, “I’m here and I’m alive and I’m different for it.” But when you’ve got a main character [pointing to herself] who doesn’t have much sense of an individual self—when they’re busy being noble and most of who they are is defined by a group—there may be a core event that tells the character who they are, to make a decision and act, but that character will set it aside and not change anything because it’s not about how she feels. [Instead,] it’s about everybody else.
This is something that the early feminist literary critics, like Carolyn Heilbrun, used to write about. Women don’t fit the plot of what she would call the hero, because women in these über-traditional roles don’t get to be the hero. They don’t get to say, “I feel, therefore I will act.” It’s more like, “You feel, therefore I will take care of your feelings. I’ll set mine aside.” That was my problem. I knew the things that happened to change me, but I would set them aside for years. Then something else would happen to remind me, and I would still try to set it aside.
Talk about the road to publishing this book.
I had an agent who is one of the finest agents in the country. She came scouting at the University of Houston’s creative writing program while I was still a student. She picked me up, and this became a pet project. She’s the kind of agent that when she calls Knopf or Little Brown, she speaks to the senior editor, and that editor will read a manuscript within a week. My book was read by top editors.
My agent either didn’t know or wouldn’t tell me why it was consistently rejected. The editors said, “It’s a beautiful book, it’s not for us.” This went on for seven years until an editor called me at home—bypassed the agent. She said, “Don’t you know that no major publisher is doing gay memoir, period? Don’t you know that editors are not the people who decide who buys your book? All we do is choose what we like, but then we have to go to a marketing board and convince them that this will sell. If they perceive it as “niche,” they won’t touch it, and your book is the kiss of death. It’s double niche—it’s Jewish and gay.” That’s why I wound up [at] a small press.
For a while, the marketing of this book was that it’s a woman’s story. Yeah, it’s a woman’s story, but this is very much about what happens to gay people in conservative religious environments. That’s what I really wanted to say, because I couldn’t say it for so many years.
Leah Lax is a Houston writer whose work has been performed by both Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Symphony. When Lax isn’t writing, you can find her at home with her Airedale, Gracie, or in the garden, or with her wife kayaking around the globe.
She will be signing copies of Uncovered Wednesday, September 2, 7 p.m., at Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet Street, Houston.
Neil Ellis Orts, a frequent contributor to OutSmart, is the author of a novella, Cary and John.