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Abby Stein on Columbia University's campus in New York City (Katie Booth/Women in the World)

New chapter

Amid a shifting tide of tolerance, transgender Jews search for faith and community

By Brigit Katz on February 23, 2016

On a temperate afternoon in late December, Abby Stein sat in a café on the Upper West Side, surveying her glass of water with a mixture of amusement and surprise. A smudge of electric pink lipstick hugged the rim of the glass like a vibrant, personalized stamp. “Is this normal for everyone who puts on lipstick?” Abby asked, and laughed.

The trappings of femininity — makeup, jewelry, dresses — are a recent and welcome addition to Abby’s life. Assigned male upon birth, she lived most of her 25 years as Srully Stein in a Hasidic enclave of Williamsburg, New York. Like so many other trans people, Abby began to experience gender dysphoria as a young child. It was an overwhelming experience, compounded by social and religious precepts that were deeply rooted in the gender binary. In Ultra-Orthodox communities, men study in religious schools and women raise children. Men wear yarmulkes and women dress in long skirts. Women are exempt from many of the mitzvoth — religious commandments — that fall upon men, but are obliged to fulfill some laws that pertain specifically to females: lighting Sabbath candles, baking the traditional challah bread.

In the world of Abby’s youth, where the sexes were separate and distinct, the concept of a trans person simply did not exist. “I knew what [I was feeling],” she said of her dysphoria. “But I had no context for it.”

Abby’s early life was defined by an extreme iteration of Jewish practice, but more relaxed forms of traditional Judaism are also divided along gender lines. Sacred Jewish texts, and by extension Jewish law, are in fact predicated upon an assumption of gender duality. A person’s sex determines what religious practices he or she is obliged to perform, and how he or she is expected to behave in social contexts.

“Gender is built into the society structurally in a way that’s hard to imagine if you’ve never been in a world that’s set up like that,” says Joy Ladin, a trans professor at Yeshiva University, the preeminent Orthodox Jewish college in the United States. “You always need to know whether the person you’re talking to is male or female. That determines pretty much everything about your interaction. Can you shake their hands or not? Will they be sitting with you at services?”

As trans visibility has burst onto the forefront of the cultural consciousness, many Jewish leaders have made efforts to understand and accommodate trans people in their midst. The Orthodox Rabbi Dr Zev Farber wrote a lengthy reflection on the subject, delving into the minutiae of both Jewish law and sexual identity (Judaism, as a general rule, revels in the nitty gritty). Somewhat staggeringly, he not only acknowledges the validity of non-binary identities, but also finds liturgical allowances for sex reassignment surgery. He writes, for example, that male-to-female surgeries do not violate prohibitions against castration because: “Hormone replacement therapy (taking estrogen and testosterone blockers) is an important part of the larger process of transition, and during this process, the male generally becomes chemically castrated. Thus, if the individual undergoing male-to-female transition is already chemically castrated due to hormone therapy, the prohibition of [castration] should no longer apply.”

In October of 2015, the Reform Jewish Movement — a progressive denomination and the largest branch of Judaism in the United States — passed a historic resolution on transgender rights. Among other things, the resolution called for gender neutral bathrooms within Reform congregations and day camps, the use of gender-neutral language at Reform institutions—even in the context of prayer —and sensitivity training for religious school staff.

“We have this long history of LGBT advocacy and inclusion both in terms of within the synagogue and within our movement,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “We realized that our policies were not as inclusive and ambitious as they could be … It just was really clear that the time [to enact change] was now.”

But even amid this shifting tide of tolerance, reconciling trans identity with Jewish tradition can be a journey of highs and lows for the people who live it. Women in the World spoke to four transgender Jewish women about self-realization, prejudice, and the difficult — but often exhilarating — process of finding themselves in sacred texts and ancient traditions. These are their stories.

ABBY STEIN, 25: “I don’t believe in God, I do believe in Judaism.”

Abby Stein on Columbia University's campus in New York City (Katie Booth/Women in the World)
Abby Stein on Columbia University’s campus in New York City (Katie Booth/Women in the World)

Abby likes to say that her childhood fantasies would make for a pretty great science fiction novel. When she was living as a boy, Abby would stand in the shower and hope that her male traits would simply wash away with the water. She collected articles about organ transplants, and told herself that she would undergo a “full body transplant” when she was older. And of course, Abby prayed. “I was praying to God I should just wake up and be a girl,” she said. “I had a lot of crazy thoughts because I had no rational context for it.”

Tucked away from the hopping, trendy center of Williamsburg, the neighborhood’s ultra-Orthodox community leads a life apart. Abby grew up believing that most people in the world were Jewish. Her first language was Yiddish, and she could barely speak English. Television, Internet, and cell phones were strictly forbidden in her household. It was a cloistered childhood, but a happy one. “It was a pretty nice life,” Abby said. “My parents were really good parents. Even though they had 13 kids, they spoke to all of us, every day.”

Though she was raised to believe in distinct and divinely-ordained roles for men and women, Abby never worried that her dysphoria was tantamount to heresy. “I’m a woman,” she said. “What’s the problem?” While studying at yeshiva — a religious school for boys — Abby was introduced to Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. In a book called “The Gates of Reincarnation,” she discovered a discussion on gendered souls, which posited that male and female souls can inhabit the bodies of either sex.

“Kabbalah was the first time that I bumped into this idea of feminine and masculine souls, and this idea that feminine souls [can be] in a male body, and the other way around,” Abby explained. “Gender is very fluid in Kabbalah.”

Despite finding what she perceived to be an echo of her experience in this religious text, Abby became restless. Transgenderism — as a reality, as something more tangible than mystic concepts of the soul — lay so far beyond her realm of comprehension that she could not put her dysphoria into words. And so Abby channeled her difference into disbelief. “Something that you have no concept for, you can’t imagine it,” she explained. “For not being religious, for questioning religion, I had words. It’s a really similar identity struggle and something was itching me.”

By the time Abby decided that she was “done with Judaism,” she was married and had a young son. The marriage ended, and Abby moved away from the ultra-Orthodox community that she had called home. With assistance from Footsteps, an organization that helps ex-Orthodox Jews integrate into secular society, Abby applied and was accepted to Columbia University, where she is currently majoring in gender studies. She also began to see a therapist who told her that, in no uncertain terms, she was transgender and would be searching for happiness until she allowed herself to live out her true identity. In September of 2015, Abby began hormone therapy.

Though she now identifies as an atheist, Abby is heavily involved with Romemu, a progressive synagogue in Manhattan that is expressly inclusive of all sexual and gender orientations. Abby attends services almost every Friday night, and often hosts Sabbath meals, during which she serves all the traditional foods of her childhood: chicken soup, potato kugel, challah. “I love Judaism,” she said. “I always say that I believe in Judaism more than I believe in God. But more radically said: I don’t believe in God, I do believe in Judaism.”

After two months of taking hormones, Abby came out to her father. His response, as Abby writes on her blog, was devastating: “You should know that this means I might not be able to talk to you ever again.”

Abby has not seen or spoken to her parents since that conversation, but she remains optimistic about the future of their relationship. “If I will be successful in whatever I am doing, they will come around,” she said. The name that she chose after coming out — Abigail — is a quiet emblem of that hope; when translated from Hebrew, it means “my father rejoices.”

JOY LADIN, 54: “I just created a Judaism based on my own needs.”

Joy Ladin, a trans professor at Yeshiva University. (Katie Booth/Women in the World)
Joy Ladin, a trans professor at Yeshiva University. (Katie Booth/Women in the World)

During her last semester as a male professor, Joy Ladin was nominated by her students to be “Professor of the Year” at Stern College, the women’s school of New York’s Yeshiva University. Since coming out in 2007, she has struggled to fill her classes.

“My enrollment fell precipitously,” Joy, a professor of English, said of the post-transition fallout. “It’s clear to me that there are a lot of students here, and probably parents, who find it difficult to understand and work with a trans professor. And the school doesn’t do anything to help them understand.”

Though she works within an Orthodox institution, Joy does not identify with the denomination — or with any other, for that matter. She grew up in a secular home in Massachusetts, and while her family was not observant, she was drawn to the writings of the Torah as a young child. “I didn’t have anybody telling me that my interpretation of Jewishness and Judaism were wrong,” Joy said. “I just created a Judaism based on my own needs.”

What Joy needed, more specifically, was to make sense of the strange, confounding feelings that had gripped her body and mind. And so she looked to the ultimate embodiment of strangeness in the Jewish tradition: God. “I was really something that was outside the understanding of anybody in my world,” she said. “God is specifically defined as what humans being can’t see or understand … Unlike in my world, where I was pretty sure that I should hide and be ashamed of the ways I didn’t fit into normal human categories, that specifically what’s great about God.”

Though Joy took comfort in this interpretation of the divine, she quashed her dysphoria for decades. She did everything that was expected of her as a man — married a woman, fathered three children — but her life felt increasingly impossible to bear. After receiving tenure from Yeshiva University, she decided to come out. Immediately after learning of Joy’s plans to transition, the university administration placed her on involuntary research leave.

“The dean … told me — and I agreed with her — that she didn’t believe that students or their parents would accept someone like me,” Joy said. “I had always believed that no one would accept someone like me, so that made sense to me even with non-Orthodox Jews. It was kind of a nightmare that I had lived with my whole life … The time we first talked about it, [the dean] said it would take a generation or two before someone like me [was accepted].”

But the dean was wrong, at least to a certain extent. Joy hired lawyers to tussle it out with the administration (a saga that the New York Post covered with characteristic glee), and just as significantly, a number of her students spoke out on her behalf.

“Some of the emails were directly supportive,” Joy explained. “Some of them were more complicated. There were students who were quite angry, and they were angry for the most wonderful reason. They were angry because they said, ‘We thought that the learning we were doing together was all about being honest and really present with each other, and here you were pretending to be someone you weren’t.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, you are angry because I didn’t come out to you sooner!’”

Within a year, Joy was back on campus, this time as a woman. There were no great outcries upon her arrival, no public demonstrations. If students, parents, or staff were uncomfortable with Joy’s presence in the school, they were also quiet about it. And in 2012, when Joy published a memoir about her transition, Yeshiva University supported the project.

Stern is home to what Joy describes as an “underground movement” of students who have established themselves as LGBTQ allies, but Joy has shied away from taking on an activist role within the university. She doesn’t want to flaunt her gender identity too vigorously, lest she make students feel uncomfortable. But she dreams of a time when such caution will not be necessary, when people like her will be embraced, rather than tolerated. “I do hope that Jewish communities will understand that there are more kinds of Jews than those who just fit easily into their categories of male and female,” she said. “Every different kind of life experiences enriches understanding of Torah.”

LEIAH MOSER, 33: “Having a sacred text that seems to speak to my situation can be incredibly helpful in making it feel possible to live.”

Leiah Moser’s gender transition marked the second of two major life changes. Four years before coming out in 2012, Leiah had converted to Judaism, along with her wife. “I had an intense personal experience that made me realize, much to my own surprise, that I actually believed in God,” Leiah said. “That set in motion a whole set of explorations that led me to joining a synagogue, and eventually converting.”

Since joining the faith, Leiah has belonged to Judaism’s progressive communities, which are not rooted in the gender norms that govern traditional denominations. In some ways, this has simplified the process of Leiah’s transition; she has not felt compelled to amend or give up any of the practices she came to love while living as a man.

But more than anyone else interviewed for this piece, Leiah seemed to grapple with her place in the expansive history of Jewish liturgy and tradition. She is a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania, and has an intense interest in Jewish scripture. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of texts like the Torah and Talmud to the faith; they are the backbones of Judaism, the celestial bodies around which the religion orbits. And, perhaps needless to say, they do not demonstrate much understanding of trans identity.

“[I]n a mystical sense, Torah is a blueprint that God looks at for creating the world, which is an amazingly powerful idea,” Leiah said. “But the problem with that idea, or rather the problem that one can have when encountering that idea, is that if the Torah is a blueprint for the world and I don’t see myself in that blueprint, then that may feel to me as if I’ve been written out of the world.”

To find herself in traditional texts, Leiah engages in creative interpretation. She cites, as an example, a strange passage in the Torah that refers to Abraham and Sarah, who were struggling to conceive a child, as “toom toomim” — a designator that describes individuals born with indeterminate sex. “The story of Abraham and Sarah,” Leiah said, “takes on for me a completely different meaning when read in the context of Abraham and Sarah really being individuals who … have to find their gender, find their sex before they are able to complete the creative work that has been laid out for them in their lives by their desires and by God.”

Leiah realizes that the passage was probably not intended to reference the trans experience. But she believes it is “vitally important” to coax out such interpretations, and to disseminate them to other Jewish people who may be experiencing a crisis of identity.

“Having a sacred text that seems to speak to my situation can be incredibly helpful in making it feel possible to live,” Leiah said. “It’s a really important part of what I want to do in this world: to help as many people as possible to find the seeds of their own salvation in … in the text that I have found so transformative in my own life.”

Hannah Simpson, 31: “The only breach in decorum and protocol was that people started applauding.”

Hannah Simpson photographed in New York City. (Katie Booth/Women in the World)
Hannah Simpson photographed in New York City. (Katie Booth/Women in the World)

Hannah Simpson has a winking penchant for wordplay — trans-inspired wordplay included. “I like to joke: there’s a place in religion for you as a transgender person,” she said with a grin. “It just might not be the sect you were assigned at birth.” Later, she noted: “I’ve never had a bat mitzvah before, and when I do, it’s going to be a bat mitzvah with ears, capes, and utility belts optional.”

On a dreary day just after New Years, Hannah was chipper and sunny-eyed, a walking emblem of LGBTQ pride. She wore Star of David earrings painted with rainbow stripes, and in her bag, she carried a rainbow-splashed Israeli flag, which she sometimes dons as a cape. Hannah also brought along two knitted yarmulkes: one stitched with rainbow threads, the other modeled after the transgender flag in pink, white, and blue. She likes to trot these yarmulkes out before journalists and other interested parties, though she doesn’t wear them very often; traditional Judaism dictates that this particular religious garment is only mandated for men. “It’s one of those things where [sometimes] I do feel like I should be wearing a [yarmulke] and I sometimes don’t,” she said. “More often than not, I don’t these days, because I’m not obliged to, and it’s weird for me to make that act that is very traditionally masculine.”

It has been two years since Hannah started living her true self. From the time she was a small child, growing up in suburban New Jersey, Hannah knew that she was a woman. Existing as a male was, as she likes to put it, an experience similar to writing with her non-dominant hand: instantly and instinctively, she knew it didn’t feel right.

During the second year of her studies at Touro College medical school in New York, Hannah decided that she felt ready to begin her physical transition. She has since withdrawn from her studies on a temporary basis; several encounters with administration and staff, the details of which she would prefer to keep private, made her feel uncomfortable and unwelcome on campus. By comparison, Hannah’s post-transition integration into the Jewish world has gone relatively smoothly.

Hannah’s family belongs to a progressive synagogue in New Jersey’s Bergen County. Her parents are active in the congregation — her mother volunteers as a lay cantor, her father as an usher — and Hannah has carried their emphasis on community involvement into her adult life. She works with a support group called Jewish Queer Youth, and is active in Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an LGBTQ congregation in Manhattan. This past December, she staffed an LGBTQ Birthright trip to Israel. Hannah has also found acceptance beyond LGBTQ Jewish communities. When the cantor of Hannah’s childhood synagogue found out that she had transitioned, he promptly offered to officiate her (as yet non-existent) wedding.

It seems appropriate, then, that the most public proclamation of Hannah’s identity took place in a synagogue. In 2013, while Hannah was still presenting as a male, she was asked by an egalitarian congregation in Boston to give a sermon on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Hannah had already begun the early phases of her transition and decided that this speech — to be delivered on a day that celebrates fresh starts and new beginnings — would present the perfect opportunity to come out.

When the congregation’s leadership saw a draft of Hannah’s speech they balked; there would be elderly members in attendance, they told Hannah, and perhaps she could edit out any parts of her speech that would cause offense. “They eventually changed their mind and came to their senses, and I gave the sermon,” Hannah said. “And to my surprise the only breach in decorum and protocol was that people started applauding.”

Though she is interested in Jewish liturgy, Hannah is not particularly bothered by the fact that sacred texts give virtually no attention to people of non-binary gender identities. “It is not so much that I can find the trans experience in the liturgy. I think it is the opposite: I can find the liturgy reflected in the trans-experience,” Hannah explained. “Gender diversity I really don’t think was on the ancient radar.”

Perhaps the best example of Hannah’s efforts to draw parallels between her own life and the Jewish tradition lies in the name that she chose when she transitioned. The biblical Hannah was a barren woman, who pleaded with God when she could not bear children and ultimately became the mother of the prophet Samuel. “With her fervor and passion she changed God’s mind,” Hannah explained. “I am a transgender woman and … I am actually taking an active step to argue with God, to assert myself. And hopefully I will find my fulfillment through that.”

As our interview drew to a close, Hannah pulled a miniature, electric menorah out of her Poppins-esque bag of knick-knacks. Every year during the Hanukah season, she teaches children and young adults how to make this very 21st-century version of the holiday’s traditional candelabrum. Though Hannah has woven her trans identity into so much of her Jewish life, it is important to her to extend her involvement beyond activism, beyond the LGBTQ community. Or as Hannah puts it: “Being a trans Jewish person is also just being a Jewish person.”


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