THE day before Yom Kippur, while attending a seminary in Israel, Leah Vincent decided to go window shopping in Jerusalem.
Armed with a month’s allowance, she spotted a mannequin wearing a charcoal-grey sweater. She walked into the store and asked to try it on, she told the New York Post.
The sweater had a lace collar and cuffs. Though her elbows and collarbone were covered, it was fitted and it showed off her adolescent curves.
She knew she was flirting with danger. But she bought it anyway.
The next day, her mother called. She had heard about the sweater from Vincent’s sister.
“Your behaviour has become unacceptable,” she said. “We give you chance after chance, and you keep on messing up and hurting people. Disappointing people.
“You are not getting any more allowance. You’ll have to figure out how to get by on your own,” she continued. “You think you’re so grown-up? Let’s see how grown-up you are.”
Vincent was only 16 – but thanks to that too-tight sweater, she had to kiss her childhood goodbye.
Raised in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family in Pennsylvania, she had already acquired a list of transgressions – writing letters to a boy and expressing an interest in attending college – but the sweater was the final straw.
Her family shunned her, packing her off to live on her own in New York City before her 18th birthday.
With no preparation for how the outside world worked, Vincent came off the rails, spiralling into promiscuity and self-abuse, which she details in her painfully raw memoir, “Cut Me Loose,” available in stores.
Vincent, now 31, was raised in Pittsburgh, the fifth of 11 children in a family devoted to the cloistered Yeshivish lifestyle. Her father, a rabbi at one of the largest synagogues in the state, devoted his life to bringing his congregation “closer to God by urging them to leave their more modern ways and embrace God’s true will: the Yeshivish lifestyle.” (Ultra-Orthodox Jews are divided into two groups, Hasidic and Yeshivish.)
In her Yeshivish community, there was a strict segregation of the sexes.
“Women in my family were not allowed to attend college or become Jewish scholars. Men had the ultimate authority in the home and in the community,” Vincent writes.
A girl’s two most important goals, she says, are to be modest and obedient. In order to reach these goals, according to Vincent, a girl must:
Wear shirts buttoned to her neck with sleeves covering her elbows and with skirts that fall below the knee. Even wearing patterned tights or wide belts are banned as too provocative.
Abstain from talking to unmarried men.
Be seen and not heard. The community frowned on women singing or talking too loudly.
These rules (and many more) were vital to maintaining a good reputation, an absolute necessity for landing a suitable husband.
“A girl’s sexuality was so powerful,” says Vincent, “any hint of it had to always be completely hidden.”
Though Vincent was initially an ardent believer who often proselytised to the neighbourhood children, she became “curious” in her adolescence.
She wrote letters to a friend’s older brother. They were effusive; they questioned women’s role in their society and clearly had an undercurrent of ardour. Her parents found out about the letters and were horrified.
Gossip spread fast in her Yeshivish community. If her family knew about the letters, so did every matchmaker from Pennsylvania to Israel.
“I was now marked as a girl who had spoken with boys. I was no longer a good girl,” she writes. “I wanted to be good. I was just too curious. My evil desires had momentarily led me astray.”
Then Vincent told her mother that she might want to attend college. The answer was swift and brutal.
“You try and do that and we’ll just make a phone call to Dr. Pretsky [a psychiatrist] and have him lock you up in a hospital,” her mother responded.
After the sweater incident, Vincent’s parents found her a studio apartment in Kensington, Brooklyn for $450 a month and job as a secretary that paid minimum wage. They paid the first month’s rent – but after that she was completely on her own in every sense of the word.
Money was her first issue. She often didn’t make enough to afford both rent and food. Often she subsisted on a slice of bread, a bottle of ketchup and a few slices of American cheese.
But the loneliness was devastating. Her mother rarely phoned. Her father had severed communication entirely. Before this move, she described herself as a “painfully shy child” who struggled making friends.
Now that she was outside of her cloistered community, she became a ghost – unsure how to deal with the world outside the Orthodoxy.
On her way to and from work, she passed a park where non-Jewish men played basketball.
“I soon began to stop and watch the games,” she says. “I longed for my stares to beckon one of those people to the bench where I sat, to talk to me.”
The little Yeshivish girl in her long skirt and modest blouse didn’t catch any eyes. For human contact, she concocted a survey on happiness, pretending to be a college student, and began interviewing the people in the park.
The players were friendly, speaking freely. Several of the men began to flirt with her. Each night, she lay in bed dreaming of her return to the park.
Then she met Nicholas. He took a special interest in Vincent and began calling her “princess,” a nickname that reminded her of her father’s pet name for her, “Leahchke.”
Desperate for human kindness, she sought refuge from her dreary basement studio and lonely life in Nicholas. So when Nicholas asked her to accompany him back to his apartment, she said yes, knowing that as a good Orthodox girl, she could not date or marry him.
Confused and – she thought – in love, she reached out to her mother for help, the one time during that summer that she was invited to her family’s house.
There, she asked her mother: “If … something would happen with a man. If I slept with one, would you sit shivah for me, treat me like I was dead?”
Her mother nodded a quick yes and turned away.
This did not stop her, though. Nicholas kept pushing her further during their makeout sessions. Finally, in a basement at a Manhattan club, Nicholas ignored her breathless pleas to stop and raped her.
She knew only the bare minimum of what intercourse entailed, and asked herself, “Was that sex?” She lacked the basic understanding of the body and the tools to deal with men to whom she had spent a childhood learning to yield and please.
“As an ultra-Orthodox girl, I was groomed to always strive to please the males who shaped my reality: my father, the rabbis who led our community,” she writes. “I carried those deeply ingrained attitudes into the wider world, believing that I must be submissive around men, that my worth was measured in how well I pleased the men I came into contact with.”
She responded by clinging to Nicholas.
“I was no longer a virgin, so I could never be re-accepted by my family. Without Nicholas’ love I had nobody in the world,” she says.
But Nicholas was no one’s saviour. Vincent discovered he was dealing drugs, and after he used and abused her, he left her.
She began to self-harm, using razor blades to cut her arms and body.
Her personal life quickly spiralled out of control. She overdosed on painkillers and had to spend 10 days in a psychiatric hospital.
“I was a crazy, broken down slut, weighed down by history that tormented me in my nightmares,” she writes.
It was everything her ultra-Orthodox community warned her would happen if she strayed. So if she was considered a whore, Vincent reasoned, she might as well start acting like one. She posted an ad on Craigslist, seeking a “mutually beneficial arrangement.”
The responses flooded in. She picked one, a lawyer from the Upper East Side. And even though she had been in the city now for several years, even after living a very “modern” life, she still was clueless. She never quoted a fee and agreed to meet him at his place. He paid her after their second go-round – and only $60. Shamed, she vowed not to prostitute herself again.
Though so much of her life was in tumult, in one aspect she was succeeding: She had been accepted to Brooklyn College on a full-ride and was getting straight-A’s, even while working full time as a secretary.
Vincent entered what she calls her first “healthy” relationship with a married professor, 42 years her senior. But he did encourage her to voice opinions on politics, culture and the world – ideas she never knew herself capable of sharing.
“He helped my voice grow strong,” she writes.
Eventually his wife found out about the affair and made the professor end it. But before that, Vincent had built up enough confidence to apply to graduate school and was accepted – again on a full ride – to Harvard.
Her freedom in graduate school was not dependent on her family, on men or on sex. She had accomplished this feat herself.
“I didn’t win freedom the day I put on an immodest sweater. Freedom was a long and challenging journey of questioning and recreating many of my fundamental assumptions of what it means to be a woman,” she says.
Vincent, now 31, has a graduate degree from Harvard. She serves on the board of Footsteps, a non-profit devoted to helping former ultra-Orthodox Jews.
At Footsteps she met a man named Zeke, who left a Hasidic upbringing in Borough Park. The two have since married and have a daughter.
“I fiercely believe that all people should have a right to a self-determined life,” she says.
“I am grateful every single day that I survived my journey, that I get to live a life of my own choosing, and that I now live in a society where my voice is allowed to be heard.”
This story originally appeared in the New York Post.