When she was 17 years old, Leah Vincent, a young Orthodox woman from Pittsburgh, found herself living alone in a tiny basement apartment in Brooklyn. She was estranged from her parents and 10 siblings, socially isolated, and living on a low-wage diet of grilled cheese sandwiches and ketchup. Desperate for company, she sought the friendship of the men at the basketball court in her neighborhood, and eventually started dating a man she calls “Nicholas.” One night, when she went to visit him at a Manhattan club called Starlight, he raped her.
Over the next few years Vincent began cutting herself, attempted suicide, was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward, became a prostitute on Craigslist, had an affair with a married professor, and eventually, after much turmoil and self-doubt, graduated from Brooklyn College and earned a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard. Now happily married with a young daughter, she has written a memoir titled “Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood,” which was published in January to general acclaim.
Vincent’s book is one of the latest additions to a growing list of ex-Orthodox memoirs. These include books by authors like Shalom Auslander and Deborah Feldman, whose latest effort, “Exodus,” was published in March; essays by writers like Judy Brown, Frimet Goldberger and Shulem Deen (who is the editor of Unpious, a website for the ex-Orthodox, and who is publishing his own book next year); and documentaries like “Leaving the Fold” and “Unorthodox,” which screened on May 4 at the Montclair Film Festival. There is even a podcast discussing the ups and downs of post-hasidic life called, tongue-in-cheek, “The After Life.” As stories go, this one is basically its own genre.
In fact, there are two kinds of ex-Orthodox — or “OTD”1 — stories we’ve been hearing a lot of lately. In 2006, journalist and sociologist Hella Winston documented the phenomenon of ex-hasidim in one of the first books on the subject, “Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels.” Although Winston had set out to write her doctoral thesis on the lives of hasidic women, she discovered instead a surprisingly large number of people who were questioning or leaving their faith. At that time, they existed on the fringes of their communities, and lacked much visibility or organization. Today, the OTD community has come out from underground. It is responsible for events, organizations, and publications and has a lively presence on social media. When the Orthodox world holds rallies — like the 2012 Internet Asifa — the OTD world shows up to protest. This transformation, from a collection of scattered individuals to a broad social movement, is the OTD story writ large.
Then there is the second kind of ex-Orthodox story — the OTD story writ small. These are stories not about an activist community, but about ex-Orthodox people trying to find their own paths. After getting their start in the first decade of the millennium on blogs — the once-thriving OTD blogosphere, which included writers like Feldman and Deen, helped lay the groundwork for the community we see now — OTD memoirists have expanded into a broad array of media. Whereas in 2005 it took an outsider like Winston to tell the OTD story, OTD writers are now telling it themselves. And while the OTD community is a shared phenomenon, each OTD journey is personal, and usually painful.
If OTD stories proliferate because there are ex-Orthodox people with stories to tell, it is also because these are stories that people want to hear.2 Ex-Orthodox narratives are inherently dramatic. They start with hardship and disadvantage, continue through challenges to be overcome, and conclude with the author’s success in the secular world. They play to outsiders’ curiosity about the Orthodox world, to Jewish anxieties about a demographically resurgent Orthodoxy and to Orthodox feelings of vulnerability in regard to the larger culture. It’s easy to see why publishers are eager to issue such books, and why websites like that of the Forward experience an uptick in traffic when these stories are posted.