Transgender and Jewish” edited by Naomi Zeveloff— The World of the Trans Jew

transgender and Jewish

Zeveloff, Naomi, editor. “Transgender & Jewish”, The Forward Association, 2014.

The World of Trans Jews

Amos Lassen

I awoke to quite a surprise this morning. An email told me to look at my Kindle and I found there this new anthology of Trans Jewish writing—a collection of essays by Naomi Zeveloff, Noach Dzurma (whose book “Balancing on the Mechitza” I have reviewed and which won the Lambda Book Award), Max Strasfield, Sarah Seltzer, Ari Lev Fornari (who was a guest at my temple and spoke at a Rainbow Shabbat) and with a foreword by the wonderfully articulate and delightful Joy Ladin. It surprised me in that I had heard that this book was being published but I am so glad to see it now.

The book takes us into the world of the transgender Jew as they lead congregations into moving beyond the gender binary and the definitions of male and female. Some may be surprised to learn that trans Jews direct summer camps, write ritual and even lead prayer services as rabbis.  The branches of Judaism aside from the Orthodox have accepted and welcomed trans Jews as of late but there are still feelings of non-acceptance and otherness among them and I would imagine this is probably true in their home synagogues and temples. The people we read about here are finding ways to be able to be who they are in mainstream Jewish life and what I find so special is that instead of leaving their religion behind, they embrace it as an integral part of who they are. For myself as a gay Jew, I understand because it was not that long ago that I did not feel welcomed in my synagogue but with education and support that has changed.

Ladin writes in her foreword that “This is a book about the birth of the future — a future that was unimaginable to me for most of my life, and that is still unimaginable for many American Jewish communities, but which, as this book demonstrates, is undeniably, irreversibly being born”. She further tells us that she grew up hiding that although she had a male body, her gender identity, her “true self” was female. She lived with the fear of rejection from her family and her Jewish community, a feeling that I am sure all of the essayists here have felt.

We have been raised in a society that has based itself on a gender binary and the assumption that we are all either male or female. In Judaism especially there are roles for each gender whether it be lighting the candles on Shabbat or needing ten men to conduct a service. Circumcision of male Jews is part of the covenant between God and the Jews.

Transgender Jews do not fit according to strict Judaic interpretation. The only options are to hide their true identity are as Ladin says “risk rejection and humiliation by presenting ourselves as transgender; or give up on Jewish community”.

We are now hearing the voice of the future as it is given to us here in this book. We are moving toward a time in which in the Jewish world is beginning to  understand that some members will be transgender and will not fit into the gender binary. We will understand what being transgender means and we will understand it as “part of the normal range of human possibility, and Jewish communities will have developed the policies, rituals and social etiquette required for transgender Jews to feel safe, accepted, included and valued.”

There are already places that do just this and I very am proud that my temple, Temple Sinai, in Brookline, Massachusetts is one of those. I feel very close to the entire transgender issue, as my niece became my nephew at age 41. It is amazing to see how he has embraced his new identity but even more exciting to see how others have embraced him.

We are approaching the age when no Jewish child will experience the terror that Ladin felt “because we will grow up knowing that Jews of all gender identities and expressions are part of klal Yisrael, the Jewish community that stretches back to Abraham and Sarah and embraces every Jew who will ever live”.

Ladin writes of a talk she gave at a temple in Boston when a young girl asked her “a question no adult has ever asked me: “Why were you afraid your community would reject you if you told them you were trans?” Unlike most Jews, she had grown up in a community with close ties to Keshet, an organization committed to the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews in the Jewish world”. What that young girl said that night ushers in a new age—-a future that is taking shape in which a new freedom will emerge. It is writers like Joy Ladin and the others in this book who are paving the way for that. By reading the essays in this book we are also helping to bring on that new age; an age that transgender Jews will not face terror, rejection, bullying, etc. They will take their places along side of us, where they belong and they will have pulpits, go to school, take part in the service, immerse in the mikveh and be full Jews regardless of gender and expression—they will no longer have to dream of acceptance.

I urge you to get a copy of this book and read it—then take time to think about what you have read and about those who wrote it.