Stein, Abby Chava. “Becoming Eve: My Journey from Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi to Transgender Woman”, Seal Press , 2019.
A Jewish Trans Coming-Out Story
Abby Stein’s “Becoming Eve” has finally arrived after having been on to read and review lists for a while. Having been raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, I have been very curious about Abby’s coming out story and reading about if she has been able to reconcile her faith with her gender. I remember all too well how it was for me to come out as gay as an Orthodox Jew and I have since heard thousands of stories from others and each is different to some degree. For Abby, being a descendant of a great rabbinic dynasty, the pressure must have been great yet as we read here, she was successful and has become an icon to others who experience what she went through. She was born male and destined to become a rabbinic leader but she became a woman.
Raised in a Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn that is “isolated in a culture that lives according to the laws and practices of eighteenth-century Eastern Europe, speaking only Yiddish and Hebrew and shunning modern life” already gave her quite a load to ponder. She was born as the first son in a dynastic rabbinical family and poised to become a leader of the next generation of Hasidic Jews. It didn’t happen quite that way.
At a young age, Abby knew that she was a girl. She looked for answers wherever she could find them including in forbidden religious texts and smuggled secular examinations of faith. Finally, she was able to leave her ultra-Orthodox manhood and came to mainstream femininity. This was indeed a radical choice that resulted in her leaving her home, her family, her way of life. Abby’s story has two strands or two transitions—the first was her transition from male to trans woman, the second was the transition from ultra-Orthodoxy. In the past, we have had a series of books from those who left Orthodoxy but, as far as I know, this is the first and therefor only memoir of a trans woman leaving it.
For those who have never lived in an ultra-Orthodoxy community, there is a lot to be learned here. These communities give their members a feeling of safety, a feeling of belonging, a unique culture and love but these communities are indeed insular and Abby shares that she did not speak English (Hasidic Yiddish is the language of these communities), she did not go movies, the theater or museums, she did not wear jeans, she had not heard the Beatles or Britney and she did not see television. She also shares her feelings about biology, culture, faith, and identity. I remember rebelling against so many rules that we had but I never dreamt that I could leave them behind me. I have since done so, or so I think, but I am reminded all of the time of the ways we did things in my family and in my community which was not nearly what Abby experiences. After all, I grew up in New Orleans and there was no ultra-Orthodox community per se.
It seems to me, after reading Abby’s story, that there is a question that we all face: How far does one go to become the person he/she/they were meant to be? It is difficult to struggle with issues of faith because of sexuality, I cannot imagine how difficult it was for Abby because of gender. She has explained as best she can but there is so much that cannot be put into words.
Abby explains that she first questioned the Hasidic lifestyle because of her gender, thinking that the very same people who were teaching about God and Judaism were the same people who were wrong about her gender. Could it be possible that they were also wrong about other things as well. Hasidic society is gender segregated as is Orthodox Judaism and this means that boys and girls do not play or learn together. One is forced to remain in the gender with which he/she/they were born. As we are well aware, Orthodox Judaism is a patriarchal religion and every father wants a son. Abby was the son they wanted, especially after he came along after five sisters.
Most of Abby’s story takes place before her decision to transition and she says that the epilogue is the prequel to another book. Her transition is still ongoing and she says that she and her editor focus on reaching maturity and this is her story of becoming— of her coming into her real self. The full story is yet untold and the full Abby is yet to be. Today she Jewishly observes nothing and celebrates what she wants to. Anny’s story is beautifully written and an important book that I am sure will be read again and again. The only downside is that now I have to wait for the next part of the story.
Below is a short biographical sketch of Abby Klein. I took it directly from the book for those who have never heard of Abby and for those who want to know more.
“Abby is the tenth-generation descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement. In 2015, she came out as a woman, and now works as a trans activist. In 2019, she served on the steering committee for the Women’s March in Washington, DC, and she was named by the Jewish Week as one of the “36 Under 36” Jews who are affecting change in the world. She lives in New York City. Of course, her story is not over.”