Oh, I had so many second thoughts telling me NOT to read this book, from a previous mediocre experience with a memoir written by someone in a similar situation to the precaution of not hurrying up to read a book everyone is excessively talking about in the media. But one single second was enough to start reading it and to continue doing so till the last page.
And what a good decision to spend some late hours in the night it was. The book is beautifully written, with open heart and honesty. An emotional and sensitive person, Leah is looking for her own sense of self. Being one of the 11 children of a Yeshivish family she looks for affection, attention and sense in a world of rules and 'fabricated mask superimposed'. On a side note, I saw recently some mentions regarding the 'Yeshivish sect', which is a misunderstanding. Maybe people are too much used with the exotic Satmer stories and cannot go out of this mind frame.
She doesn't want revenge or to expose people, and is delicate enough to alter details about her family. She is writing about herself, a young Jewish girl that wants to find her own way. It is not easy to continue living within the limits of your small world nowadays without having even a limited contact with the big world and through those interactions arise the tension and the need of sense and stronger identity. Sometimes, you return to your world as long as you can understand or you are explained. If not, the temptation is to keep going and break the chains of family and obedience.
The first reason of conflict is her natural desire to go to college. But she needs to get married and take care of the family and with a good yichus - her father a rabbi and her mother a descendant of the Vilna Gaon, she had a fair amount of chances to get a good match.
I'd heard myself more than once that a girl should not be so 'klug' if is looking to marry well. And that Torah learning is only for men. But times changed and her family belongs to the mind set of the second WWII generation trying to cope with more observance and limitation from the overall world. The main line against is: College boys and girls mixed and spent their time studying wasteful and immoral ideas'.
Women, including from good yeshivish and hasidic background are learning as much as men and sometimes even earning more than them. There are some limits of professional achievements and the success doesn't go smoothly.
'If they would have negotiated with me, I would have been satisfied. Perhaps I never would have left my faith', she says. This long relationship with loneliness that Leah's choices will bring is the result of the lack of compromise. She wanted to be saved from her rebellion, but with love and affection and a little bit of direction. She did not receive it because the parents were either too busy or simply unable to understand what she was looking for. And why. Her father accused her often she is looking for attention, but it is nothing wrong with it. Wrong was her perfect loneliness: without friends, relatives to take care of her and financial support, she is left with her own choices and she is struggling looking for affection, herself and a new sense in life.
Despite the nightmare of being raped and neglected and abused, and being hunted by suicidal tendencies she made it to Harvard. The tone of her writing is sincere, far from being pathetic and sweetly ironic: 'A Yeshivish girl who could fall for a Rastafarian drug dealer should be bold enough to go to college'. Once accepted to Harvard, she was finally able to tell to herself: 'nobody can tell me I am worthless'. Of course one can live well without Harvard but for her, it was the final societal confirmation that she is good, and smart and can have her own life. Her bet was successful, but she is among the lucky gifted few who did it.
And again, there is the loneliness one can hardly cope with, religious or not. Most part of the time she was left alone, with her choices and desperation and lack of alternatives because beyond her capacity of imagination. She doesn't know the language and is unable to find friends. She take a small sign of attention a manifestation of love. And when the 'love' is over, she is again left alone.
'The relief I found in cutting my skin helped me cope as I lived my split life of religion and college, modesty and loneliness, hope and memory'. She never keeps learning though and think back about her experiences, she is making new friends and succeed to marry and have a child. Plus, she finished Harvard and creates good writing. There are not bad children, only inexperienced parents and being able to recognize the mistakes and look for permanent improvement is part of the Yiddishkeit. Those who decided to went frei are not worse than the rest, but individuals looking as much as the rest of us for sense and sensibility. Loneliness is horrible and no one has the right to condemn someone to went through it, as Leah did. Helping when needed is a huge responsibility and burden and no one should be left alone.
I strongly recommend the book to anyone, regardless of the degree of observance; there is a lesson to be learned from everything and this honest story has a lot to teach us all.