Opera deals with abortion, leaving chassidism and finding female love

AUTHOR and librettist Leah Lax was born into a liberal Jewish family in Dallas, Texas.

When she was 15, Lubavitch came to town. She told me that she was attracted to them by “a combination of adolescence, idealism and rebellion”.

Leah said: “My mother was beside herself when I joined. I got in too far, too much, too soon.

“By the time I was 18, I had an arranged marriage to a young man from Dallas with a similar background, who had also joined them.

“We didn’t know each other before we got engaged. He proposed on the first date. I was at the University of Texas. We met there. He was a baal teshuva like I was. The rabbi introduced us and told us it was time to marry.”

Leah admitted that she was never attracted to her husband sexually.

She said: “In Chassidic or Orthodox Judaism, I understood that it was secondary. You had this mission to build a Jewish home together. We moved to a fledgling Chabad community in Houston, Texas, and helped to build it. The community is quite substantial there now. We were some of the very first who arrived.”

Leah gave birth to seven children in 10 years.

She said: “Lubavitch does not allow birth control, although some people are breaking that rule. But you have to have spine to go against the rules.”

She continued: “It was extremely difficult, but I loved my children. They became my purpose for staying.”

She also taught chumash to small children in a yeshiva school.

“I was so immersed that I didn’t have time to think of my feelings,” Leah said.

“It was endless. You just did it. They were my children, my purpose, until I became pregnant for the eighth time after a very difficult pregnancy with the seventh.”

She described her feeling on becoming pregnant for the eighth time, when she had a two-month old premature baby, an 11-month-old child and five other children under nine.

She was exhausted and not well, and felt that this last pregnancy was a serious threat to her life.

She said: “It was like a body scream. My body was screaming, `Get it out, get it out. This can kill you’.”

When she told her husband, she said that he blew up and would have to divorce her and that she would lose her children.

Her doctor agreed to an abortion, although he couldn’t find any clear medical justification, except tiredness and asthma.

In desperation Leah went to a rabbi.

She said: “I didn’t think that the rav would allow it. But I knew before we asked that if that rav said, No, I was going to do it anyway.

“Nobody knew my body. For the first time I knew my body. I didn’t care what anyone said, if I felt the danger, then there was a clear, present danger.”

She continued: “Very much to his credit, the rav did rule that we should have the abortion, but he said nobody must know.

“He told us never to speak about it to anybody. We kept it a secret and my husband gave in.”

But she said: “The whole experience was a wake-up call. I had a new ownership of my body.”

Both Leah and her husband were grieving for their unborn child. But because the rav had told her husband never to speak about the abortion, he did not feel able to share his grief with her.

Leah said: “He took it literally when the rav said, ‘Never speak of this’. The experience changed me that much that it wasn’t that long after that I allowed myself to fall in love.”

The object of Leah’s attentions was a female convert to Judaism she met at a Chanucah party.

For the first time in her life Leah was able to say the word ‘lesbian’ to herself.

She admitted that when she was growing up in the conservative state of Texas “any kid who had feelings for someone of the same sex, it was never mentioned”.

Leah recalled: “When you were a kid you didn’t give your feelings a label. Now the media is saturated with sexual identity.”

But she said that after her abortion “I knew that there were things that were never going to change, that I could never live fully with my husband and I knew that I was going to find my way out”.

Before she left her husband, Leah went to graduate school and gained a degree in creative writing.

She said: “I did it at the very end of my marriage when I was allowing myself to get a life. As an artist you have to listen to that inner voice in order to write.

“My mother was an artist and I followed her lead. She was very happy for me.”

When her husband finally gave Leah her ‘get’, the couple still had three dependent children.

Her Texas lawyer told her she had not a chance of getting custody of her children, but she had access to them.

She told her children: “You have to be true to what you are, no matter what. I will support you no matter what.”

Now she says: “Several of my children left the fold. I have three Chassidic kids and four not at all religious adults.”

Now all her children are in touch with her, but it took a long time.

She said: “The two who remain most religious were the most difficult to crack, particularly when I met my wife.”

As to her own current religious level, Leah calls herself “the typical ambivalent Jew”.

She said: “After years of rebellion, Jewish ritual is something I fall back on, when I am in need. It was very meaningful to me when my mother died.

I am fierce about my ownership of all things Jewish. I have an enormous amount of Jewish knowledge from my Orthodox years and teaching in yeshiva.”

Leah published her memoir, Uncovered — How I left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home, in 2015.

Jewish composer Lori Laitman came across the book and asked if she would write a libretto based on it.

Leah said: “It was an incredible experience. The opera is very moving and very powerful.

“The abortion song ends in a shout, called, Get it out. The rav is saying, ‘Never speak of this to anyone’.

“You see the father’s grief. He sings an aria to his lost child, ‘Come my little one and I’ll teach you the Aleph Beth’. Everyone cries when he sings that.

“You hear the community telling the mother, ‘Your body belongs to God’. You see the mother struggling to even hear. She needs herself.”

The production is being directed by Beth Greenberg and conducted by Jackson McKinnon.

The cast includes soprano Rachel Policar as Lisa/young Leah, mezzo-soprano Emily Blair as older Leah, tenor Chris Carr as Levi, mezzo-soprano Heather Jones as mother, Rachael Braunstein as mikva attendant and Sydney Anderson as Lover.

Uncovered premiered in Logan, Utah, in March.

Leah’s forthcoming book about listening to refugee stories and making an opera, Not From Here: Song of America, will be published by Pegasus in 2023.

Leah’s libretti include The Refuge, composed by Christopher Theofanidis for Houston Grand Opera, and Overboard, a choral work by composer Mark Buller.

Also with Buller, Leah recently wrote Mass In Exile for the Grammy Award-winning Houston Chamber Choir to premiere in October, 2024.

Uncovered, will be premiered at New York’s City Lyric Opera from November 16-19.

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