Thursday 5 December 2013

THE CHASSIDIC WRITER: A Lesbian Mother of Seven

I’d like to give this interview as a follow-up to my “Berkeh’s Story” that was posted here a short time ago.

I was born in Dallas, Texas in 1956, into an immigrant family—my grandparents had lost all their money in the Depression and then drove down to Texas with everything they owned in their car. They were Russian Jews with an orthodox background, although we were all Reform by the time I was growing up. We were a tight family. We met every week for a big traditional meal.
I was a dreamy girl, artistic and edgy and idealistic. In adolescence, I found it painful when the other girls began flirting with boys. I didn’t understand how to do that, and knew I was different. I had friends, but somehow still felt terribly lonely. In high school, I fell in love with a girl but it was socially dangerous to even name what I felt. I wrote long letters to her, I obsessed over her.  But it didn’t have a name. I didn’t know anyone else who felt like that, either.
When I met the first Lubavitch shluchim to come to Dallas, I was still full of desire that easily became a dissociated floating desire to bind my soul to a great mystical other. I believe that for me, religion was where I put physical longing.
I’m interested in the interrelationship of spiritual and sexual desire. They both go to the core of who you are.
I never told the girl I fell in love with how I felt. She was a straight girl and I wouldn’t dare. One weekend, we had plans to go camping, but it looked like rain. This was 1971, and I was sixteen and had just graduated high school. I’d come across this poster about a shabbaton (weekend learning event that takes place over the Sabbath). Because it was raining, we went to that shabbaton instead and I fell in love with religion! My life changed by a caprice of the weather. The hassidim promised me unqualified love. They promised me G-d! I was swept away.
A young Rabbi Moshe Feller was there. I call him the consummate salesman. He encouraged us to come to his new institute in St. Paul, Minnesota. I didn’t have money but he said he would take care of me. I was going to college in the fall but I went off that summer to St. Paul, to Bais Chanah Institute for Women, and talked my girl friend into going with me.  

After a while, my friend left. She said she really hated it. I grieved losing her terribly, but it didn’t stop my headlong fall into frumkeit (Orthodox Jewish religion). I soon had the worst case of “baal tshuva syndrome” (returnee to Judaism)—spouting mystical lines, obsessively attending to every detail in halacha with no compromise and no common sense, the kind of baalas teshuva that embarrasses lifers. That was me at sixteen.
But the shluchim in Dallas were thrilled because I was their first. When I left the Institute, I went to their home every couple of days of what remained of my summer, just to help me cope with my parents, who were so upset about my new frumkeit. I moved out and on to college, since I had a scholarship and thus means of support. I had little contact with them after that, and would not for years. I was lonely and confused, too young to be on my own, and the more unhappy I was, the more I clung to yiddishkeit. I began to study chassidus to dispel all the rising doubts, and fear, about my new Chassidic life. I studied a lot.
I used to dream I was a yeshiva boy. I would lose myself in learning, live in those gorgeous books, apart from the huge world that was looming too soon on my young life. I became reasonably fluent in learning, for a baal tshuvah. Then, when a new Chabad House opened in Austin, I transferred to the university there.
But I was a girl. I was told clearly that I could attain all those religious goals, and God’s loving approval, not through study but through marriage and children. I wound up with a shidduch (arranged marriage) at eighteen, and got married a month after my nineteenth birthday. The shliach in Austin made the shidduch. By that time, I was a Chassidic soldier—I just wanted to please G-d and do “the right thing,” and I would do anything to that end. I never thought about loving my husband, or desire. Nobody asked.
I had seven children in a ten-year span, and I fell in love with every one. That’s what my life became. I also became, of course, a day school teacher, and I was good at it. But no matter what I did, I lived with terrible loneliness, in the middle of so many people always around me! My marriage was empty. I watched the burden of supporting a big household and the inexplicable lack of anything vital between us wear him down over the years. We got so we rarely spoke, slept apart, and he lost interest in sex (can I blame him?)  He worked and worried about money, and turned always back to his learning. Today, I think it is a crime against non-homosexuals for gay people to marry them and steal their youth, waste their love. It’s not just about us. 
not the actual family
I was always sick with low-grade stuff, allergies, mild persistent asthma, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue. I had gay dreams I didn't dare tell anyone about, developed insomnia, then panic attacks in my sleep. This went on for years. I never talked about these things.
My last child was a preemie, and I quit teaching. As he got older, and I got older, and had more quiet time, I simply became more conscious. But at the time, it felt like something had happened to my hormones and I started feeling like an adolescent, as if I’d frozen in place at age sixteen for years, and then, when I unfroze, felt…everything. Natural physical longing settled over me. I would lie alone in my separate bed and pray that I would get to hold a woman in my arms and feel her healing love and touch, just once in my life.
Then I became intensely, briefly attracted to one woman in the community and this alarmed and scared me. So I went to a therapist to try to put it in its place.
All of this was taking place in Texas, in a small Chabad community. I thought I was the only frum gay woman in the world.

The last thing you do in the frum community is share your secrets. I had friends, and found the frum community loving and supportive of its own, if you met their criteria, but even friends did not confide in one another. Secrets, once released, can hurt your children, hurting you in your most vulnerable place. So, I began to write, a way to finally talk, then I hid my writing under my bed. But as soon as I started doing that, I realized I wasn’t the only one hiding stories.
When you live in the frum world, you have a group identity and a group voice. Like everyone, I had accumulated my secrets over the years. But I wrote many stories through those sleepless nights, all of our secret stories. I hid them all.
Our Houston community had no high school because the shliach there felt it was important to send teenagers away from the pervasive secular influence. I found sending my kids away one at a time devastating. The yeshiva in many ways replaced us as parents. But at yeshiva, my sons sat long hours, were forbidden to speak of girls or talk to girls, and were constantly exhorted with very final answers to cosmic questions before they could even formulate their natural young questioning. I remembered being young and dreamy with that adolescent grandiosity that makes a kid feel they can choose any path, accomplish the world, and my kids didn’t seem to be allowed that. I could see what I hadn’t seen in myself, that they were being stamped onto one path and pushed quickly past their adolescence, and I began to feel terrible about the whole yeshiva thing.
Old dreams of making love to a woman returned. In the daytime, I would say to myself, why am I dreaming I’m a man, because I refused to imagine in the daytime that I was a woman making love to a woman in that dream. Panic attacks in my sleep returned, and sleepwalking, and insomnia. I wrote and wrote through those nights.
When I wrote “Berkeh’s Story,” I didn’t imagine myself to be Berkeh. I wrote the story purely as an act of empathy. Only now, years later and with a more educated eye, I can see why so many who read the story once it was published presumed the author was gay. But at the time, I wouldn’t allow myself to think the word lesbian or gay, and I thought I could hide behind the label of “fiction.” I wrote it, and hid it under the bed with the others.

I had a friend in Crown Heights, a kind, deep person, who did “spiritual counseling.” Because she was so naturally un-judgmental, one and then a stream of secretly gay women started showing up, like an underground railroad of chassidishe women from Crown Heights, Boro Park, Williamsburg. She told each one that there is nothing wrong with them, that despite whatever they thought and felt, they were good people, and they should go back to their husbands. I think this is what most of them wanted to hear and they were simply grateful for her unqualified acceptance of them as whole and good people. She was the first person to whom I admitted these feelings.
I shared “Berkeh’s Story” with this friend and she told me to submit it to a Moment Magazine short story contest. There were nearly a thousand entrants, and Berkeh won the competition! Moment Magazine had the second largest circulation of any Jewish periodical, and for five minutes, my story was everywhere—very exciting and very scary. One story had come out from under the bed.
My husband was a graduate of an Ivy League school. He worked in IT. He had suppressed a great deal of his interests to become frum and he was quietly proud of me for writing, though he wouldn’t read what I wrote because it would take time away from learning Torah. He decided he wasn’t worried about Moment Magazine because he didn’t think there were any frum Jews who read it.
Then one day, the Rav called me. I was scared to death. I had been taught, “If a Rav says black is white, it is white.” You make yourself a rav and you only ask a sha’aleh (question about Jewish law) when you are ready to accept, b’kabolos ol (with innocent and complete acceptance), one hundred percent of what he says.  Now he was calling me. He said, “Is that Leah Lax? I thought you were a fruma veiber mit a sheitl,” (a religious woman who covers her head with a wig). Suddenly I felt dishonest saying yes. Instead I said, “That’s what they say about me.” He asked how I dared to put such a story in a magazine. People had come to him about it. He said, “You‘ve hung out our dirty laundry.”
I was shaking hard. That was the first and only time I ever talked back to a Rav. It was the first time I argued. I argued for Berkeh. Berkeh is a good boy. He is many of our boys. All I did was show his real feelings. The Rav hung up on me.

I am NOT dirty laundry.
                                                   Thanks to Frum Satire, whose picture this is

I had been taught that halacha is a whole package, a contract with God. I didn’t know how to take just some of it. With that conversation, I felt the contract break within me. And it was pivotal.

After that, inside me, it was all over. In time, I let myself fall in love with a woman. I divorced my husband. I left the community. I stopped keeping halacha gradually because it was embedded in me, but I could never find a compromise. How could I continue to honor a contract that implied that the love that I have to give is dirty laundry?

I had never met an out lesbian. It would be years more before I met anyone else both gay and frum—I still felt like the only one in the world. But I had heard of this one Jewish lesbian that intrigued me. She wasn’t frum, but I wanted a friend, someone who might understand. I went to meet her, determined to try to forge an honest connection with someone at last, thinking no one in my community will know.

Falling in love with a woman the first time was amazing. The most glorious thing! It all happened hard and fast and I couldn’t sleep or eat from the rush of hormones that left me half nauseous and dreamy. I was forty-six years old going on sixteen, amazed that love could be the most natural thing in the world, and that without knowing, I knew just what to do.
But once we got involved, I was followed and people even took pictures of me pulling into her driveway.

I thought, H-shem gave me this gift that feels like a spectacular celebration of the life He gave me. Halacha judges me, people judge me, but H-shem gives me this amazing part of myself that halacha and rabbis want me to shut down. I’d say that, in a way, that first love experience was a big part of my separating halacha and rabbanim from G-d in my mind, and deepened my faith in G-d.

Still, I wish I’d had the courage to tell my husband and children “I’m a lesbian,” complete the divorce, and move out, all before getting into a relationship. The style of our parenting had always been to protect our children by keeping them innocent, so I never told them I was gay or, G-d forbid, that I had fallen in love with a woman, even though some of them were grown.  Years later, they would look back on my “protection” and the little lies I used to build it, as simple dishonesty. As betrayal. From your own mom. Whom you always loved and trusted.

Lashon hara (slander) was flying. People confronted my children and husband and never me. My younger kids began acting out. I stayed on too long, trying to at least make the bar mitzvah of my youngest son for him. That event, when it finally came, was a false show of togetherness that makes my son wince today to remember.
A while after I moved out, my husband insisted I come and speak openly to the children. I did a terrible job of coming out to them. I planned what to say for days, but I never got a word out. The kids didn’t let me speak, and all spoke at once. They were very hurt, not nearly as much about my being gay as my having an affair and hurting their father.
Being gay? Well, that part didn’t surprise them at all. Sigh. Nobody knows you like your kids. Some didn’t speak to me for months afterwards.
My two youngest wanted to stay with their father. They were thirteen and fourteen. That was hard. We lived in the South where there is less tolerance for issues of sexual orientation, and my lawyer said, “Don’t even try to get custody.” So I moved less than a mile away, and I saw my kids very often. Their father supported that.

After I left, the community treated my two youngest like orphans, with great pity, and they hated that. That pity drove them away from yiddishkeit (Jewish life). They said, “They act like you are dead!” They told me, “How can people reject you and at the same time say they love me, when you are a big part of me?” Kids really hate hypocrisy.
I lost my community, my friends, my family, in part my kids. I started over with nothing, alone. Gradually I found my way, and through it all, never stopped writing. I went to a university and developed my craft. Writing forced me to stay honest with myself. I got a job, new friends, new community. When I met my partner, what drew us together was how very much we shared in the present, not the past.

My life with her is peaceful, affectionate, funny, endlessly interesting. Having this good whole life has helped me enormously in my relationship with my kids, like a great pool from which I dip and share patience, strength, and good humor with them. I didn’t let my kids reject me. I just showed up and said, “I’m still here. I’m your mom.”

There’s some damage, on both sides. The healing continues. A few just don’t include me in their lives as much as before. I struggle terribly with their reticence about my partner, and so does she. She came into my life ready to play grandparent, with no children of her own. But all the grandkids are in frum homes, and she has had to gradually face the reality that they won’t open that door.
Years have passed. When I go to my kids’ houses, they have stopped being embarrassed, even the ones in Crown Heights. I arrive in my pants and uncovered hair and my son walks with his arm in mine down a busy street. We are close.

Not long after I left, I went to my ex-husband and said, “I never wanted to hurt you.” But he said he had forgiven me a long time ago. He said, too much was in H-shem’s hands, not ours. “We didn’t get to choose that you are a lesbian.” We’ve been on good terms ever since. Not everyday friends, but amiable co-parents. The others in that community shunned me, walked on the other side of the road, wouldn’t talk with me. He was the only one who stayed the same. Really, he got better. Warmer.
All those years of my marriage, I took women to the mikvah (pool for ritual immersion), since we didn’t have a mikvah lady. I thought it was a very spiritual and beautiful thing to do. I wasn’t conscious of any attraction to any of those women. But when I read the earlier interview with the mikvah lady posted on this blog, I cried. After the divorce, I heard that my community was freaked out that a lesbian had taken their women to the mikvah for years. At the time, I thought they were horribly wrong and unfair, but eventually I saw why they were upset. I can understand.
The last time I went to the mikvah, I felt my whole Jewish life was there, the kallah about to marry, all the times I immersed just before and after the births of my children, all the other months through twenty-seven years of marriage.
I co-created an exhibit called The Mikvah Project and it has been traveling around for fourteen years. I made it with a photographer and interviewed women talking about mikvah. The women knew they would remain anonymous. The photographer didn’t show their faces. So they opened up. It felt good to listen and to allow them to show their true feelings. It was the first time I’d heard frum women talk honestly about their inner lives.
But one woman I interviewed made me look at myself like never before. It probably snapped my last connection. She said she fell in love with other girls throughout her young years, then had her shidduch and married. She kept on saying she was happy, but emptiness was written all over her. Her shoulders slumped. Her clothes hung on her. Her face was lined and sad. But I’m happy!
I knew she was gay when she said, “I just had to make a kind of surgery on myself.” I flushed red and had to stop her and walk away to catch my breath. Finally I saw myself through all those years. She had cut out her sexuality so she could be the good wife and mother—a violence to her soul.
These days, I don’t need anything from the frum community. I don’t need acceptance. I am free. I can say what I think and not worry that I’m not complying.

But if I could, I would ask things for my frum children. I would ask for them to have the freedom, within the community, to have real friendships where you can admit doubts and sins and other normal human things you don’t talk about in the frum world. I would ask for women to be paid according to their skills and important qualities, and equally to the men, since my older daughter was a marvelous talented teacher but had to leave it because she was hungry and had no medical insurance, while the full-time male employees had a salary and benefits. I would ask for the frum community to erase that overarching pressure on all of them to conform, because that crushes everybody indiscriminately when, really, we’re all different.

Today, I will only live in a community that is as diverse as possible, one in which the only criteria for belonging is to be an individual. In that kind of community, I can be wholly present. I can offer all of myself.

My partner, Susan, and I travel a lot. And I keep on writing. Writing is my lens for discovering, late in life, this awesome, varied amazing world from which I was hidden for so very long.

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