Writer who rebelled against strict Jewish upbringing returns ‘home’
It was a warm but sobering return for Leah Vincent — the daughter of a former local rabbi — who left Pittsburgh 17 years-ago and has since written a tell-all memoir: “Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood.”
The Carnegie Library in Squirrel Hill, one of Vincent’s favorite childhood haunts, played host to the standing-room-only crowd that turned out on May 15 to hear Vincent speak about the experiences that she says led her to writing her book.
More than 200 people packed into a library conference room, the largest crowd ever assembled for a book-signing there, according to a Squirrel Hill library spokesperson.
“I can’t believe I’m back here,” Vincent said, as she began her talk. “It’s surreal to be in the Squirrel Hill library after all these years.”
Vincent, 32, grew up in Squirrel Hill, she said, and spent countless hours in that same library, where “in the world of books, any story could be told, the options were endless.”
But during those years, once she left the library, “there were far fewer options,” she said.
Vincent, one of 11 siblings, described her life growing up as a daughter of a Yeshivish, or ultra-Orthodox, rabbi.
“As a girl being raised in this lifestyle, almost every decision was made for me,” she said. “How I dressed, who I could be friends with, what I ate, my career options and who I would marry.”
Although she embraced this lifestyle as a child, when she became a teenager, “things started to unravel,” she said.
“I started asking questions I wasn’t supposed to ask,” she said.
“At 15, both my parents and I were disturbed by the rebellious questions and desires that were brewing in my heart.”
Vincent began to rebel against her upbringing. That rebellion included telling her mother that she wanted to attend college, which she was told was “off limits,” and writing letters to a boy. Her parents eventually sent her to Manchester, England to a stricter school, where her rebellion continued.
Eventually, things escalated.
“My relationship with my family disintegrated,” Vincent told the crowd. “To this day, my parents, and most of my siblings, consider me toxic, crazy and dangerous.”
At 17, Vincent was living on her own in New York City. Unprepared to face the non-ultra-Orthodox world, Vincent said she fell victim to a series of humiliating and dangerous sexual encounters, blaming those encounters on the emphasis of modesty with which she was raised.
“Modesty hindered me from developing a sense of ownership of my body,” she claimed.
She promised herself, that if she survived, she would share her story with the world.
Vincent eventually put herself through college and then earned a graduate degree in public policy from Harvard. She is married to a former ultra-Orthodox man who also chose to leave that way of life, and the couple has a 2-year-old daughter.
Vincent is now active in Footsteps, an organization that provides support for those leaving the ultra-Orthodox community and advocates for the rights of ultra-Orthodox women who stay within that community.
Based on the reaction of the crowd listening to Vincent’s story last week, the vast majority of those in attendance were supportive of her journey to self-determination.
Vincent received a rousing round of applause at the conclusion of her talk and spent about a half-hour fielding questions and listening to comments from her audience. One former Catholic woman, who had read “Cut Me Loose,” said she had undertaken a similar journey and told Vincent: “You helped me so much by your courage.”
Vincent uses a pseudonym when speaking of her family and did not identify them by name during her Squirrel Hill appearance.
But her father, Rabbi Yisroel Miller, who served as the spiritual leader of Congregation Poale Zedeck from 1985 to 2009, went public with Tablet Magazine about his daughter in January 2014. Miller told “The Chronicle” that his statements to Tablet “fairly reflects what I believe.”
“Regarding her teenage years, it is clear to me that she does not, or perhaps is not always able to, separate her imaginings from the facts,” Miller told “Tablet.” “Leah first came under the care of a psychiatrist when she was 13, and over the years she was in treatment for serious disorders and self-destructive behaviors. As painful as the situation is to our family, we hope that her gaining the media attention she has craved for so long will bring her some measure of peace. We will continue to love her, always.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)