Gloria Named My Memoir

By Hedgebrook Guest

Categories: Alum Experiences,

It happened again. Someone “friended” me and her profile picture was of a smiling woman in hijab. Since my book Uncovered is about leaving the Hasidim, this wasn’t a common experience. I was pleased. I see my memoir as feminist, as an act of solidarity with covered women everywhere. I didn’t always see it that way.

Back in 2010, I went to Hedgebrook for the first time. I had just sent off a final draft of my memoir to my agent and was eager to delve into my new novel. I saw no one else that first day, needed no one else. I hung up clothes and set up my writing space, took a careful walk around my cabin, and then I was ready to go to work. But first, a quick email check—and there was my agent’s name.

She said she felt the latest rewrite was slow and tinged with self-pity. She rejected it. I paced the next few hours, all of my plans in shreds on the floor.

I was the last to arrive to dinner at the farmhouse that evening, not exactly in the best frame of mind to meet the people who were to be my companions over the coming month. I found the other six already around the table. There was one seat left. I took it, and sat down next to Gloria Steinem.

It’s an unwritten rule at writing retreats to stay low-key about anyone’s achievements or reputation out in the world. A retreat is private space, workspace, carefully blessedly separate from out there. I’d been twice to Yaddo, where there were always a few major figures at dinner sprinkled among us wannabes. But this was Gloria Steinem.

Table conversation was already underway. We were writers of screenplays, stage productions, libretti, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. We were white, black, Chinese, Japanese-American, and of a variety of faiths—all this among only seven of us.

In the same way that she has influenced the national conversation, Gloria’s presence infused ours with social consciousness. I listened, shy, trying to take it all in. But somewhere along the way, I managed a moment of clarity like you have only a few times in your life.

I was raised a Texas Jewish girl, grandchild of immigrants, child of sixties liberals. I joined the Hasidim at sixteen in 1972, just when the fight to ratify the ERA was under way and the Women’s Political Caucus convention in Houston was about to take place. I spent the next thirty years living as if the roiling, creative, politically charged world of my childhood was a distant, two-dimensional scene on the other side of a veil.

I looked at Gloria and thought, I missed an era. I thought, I’ve been trying to write a feminist memoir when I don’t have the language.

After dinner, I went back to my cabin and faced starting the memoir over again. As I turned to that first page, I was deeply aware of the other women working in their cabins around mine, their lights glowing through the night forest. An owl glided past, then rose above my sight. I thought of how deeply I’d been affected by social and political events when I was young. I thought about the position of women in American society and among the Hasidim, and how those relative positions had shaped my story.

I had many conversations with Gloria that month. We took long walks. She recommended books—among them a slim volume by Carolyn Heilbrun that I will always associate with the particular light filtered through trees at dusk. In my tiny cabin, I began to feel deeply connected to the women all over the world who are required by religion to cover themselves.

One night at dinner Gloria said, “I thought of a title for your book.” Uncovered. Now her words are on the cover: “A story that millions will recognize, told with courage, spirit, and honesty.”

Uncovered is making its way into the world, but this part of how it came to be is most essential to where I am now. I have dedicated my book “to my covered sisters everywhere.” I welcome that conversation. Perhaps it will come.

 

About the Author:

Leah LaxLeah Lax has written award-winning fiction and non-fiction as well as an opera for Houston Grand Opera that was reviewed in the NYTimes and broadcast on NPR. Her work has appeared in many places, including Salon, Dame, Lilith, jewishfiction.net, and in anthologies by Seal Press and North Atlantic. When she isn’t writing, you can find her in the garden, or playing her cello, or with her wife kayaking around the world.

Purchase your copy of Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home.


 

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Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.

 

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