A Queer Ancestor in the Butch-Trans Border War
As the month of Tammuz draws to a close, we have the opportunity to mark the yahrzeit of a queer ancestor, the rumored-to-be-lesbian, potentially-transgender, and definitely awesome Maid of Ludomir, otherwise known as Hannah Rachel.
Growing up, one of my favorite pastimes was poring over dusty literature and historical annals, searching for the slightest of homoerotic nods from the author, the vaguest of historical conjecture in the biographies of famous dead people. Rumors about Eleanor Roosevelt or Emily Dickinson simultaneously titillated and comforted me, easing the burden of isolation that is felt by some gay kids who turn to a voiceless past, seeking to anchor themselves in historical precedent and human community.
And, like others, I’ve also searched for traces of myself in my Jewish past. The sometimes threadbare language of the ancient world provides a number of opportunities. David and Jonathan’s love for one another turned a few cogs in my imagination. The mere hint of romance between Ruth and Naomi kept me awake during Shavuot. And in the Talmud I have glimpsed the pretty boy Yochanan in just one too many questionable bath scenes.
There’s always some danger, of course, in assigning posthumous identities—you risk presumptuousness and factual error, to mention nothing of anachronism. The curious case of the Maid of Ludomir illustrates both the delight and the risk inherent in reclaiming queer heroes of the past.
The Maid of Ludomir, whose real name was Hannah Rachel Verbermacher, broke from the ranks of routine anonymity assigned to other females in her Hasidic community in the early 1800s. While visiting her mother’s burial site, she fell into an open grave, or so the legend goes. During a lengthy convalescence in which she drifted in and out of consciousness, she appeared before the Heavenly Court, where she was given a new soul. Finally, she awoke from her trance-like state and immediately took on a new identity, that of a rebbe. Immediately breaking off an impending marriage, she donned tallis and tefillin (clear markers of masculine privilege in the Hasidic world) and began teaching. She was said to dress in male garb and it is reported that she recited Kaddish in public after her father’s death (a duty the Hasidim would reserve for male relatives).
Widely respected for her great learning, she eventually attracted her own circle of faithful Hasidim. She was known to preside over tischen (communal Shabbat meals headed by a rebbe) and to distribute shirayim (leftovers) to her eager devotees. When, later in life, she and a fellow mystic joined forces to hasten the arrival of the Messiah, Elijah himself intervened, fearful that the pair’s efforts would succeed in a world not quite ready.
Like too many people in history whose communities have deemed them queer in one way or another, the Maid of Ludomir does not have a happy ending. In addition to attracting the attention of learners, she also attracted attention from the patriarchal establishment, who were rankled by this bizarre aberration in their orderly world. A powerful and well-known rebbe took her to task, coercing her to forfeit her teaching role. She complied, turning in her tallis and tefillin, and also acquiescing to a series of doomed marriages, all unconsummated. She finally died in utter obscurity without any descendants to mourn her.
Recently she was dredged up from the depths of anonymity and is once again attracting talmidim (students). In 2004 a memorial stone was unveiled on the Mount of Olives to mark her supposed burial site. Some now observe her yahrzeit, which is the 22 of Tammuz, falling on July 12 of this year. Books have been written about her. Jewish and feminist blogs have buzzed about her.
The Maid of Ludomir attracts the especial attention of both butch lesbians and transmen, two sets of identities between which there is sometimes camaraderie, sometimes a creative tension, and sometimes bitterness, anger, rejection, and misunderstanding. She is claimed by the lesbian community, on the one hand, who can picture her tzitzit dangling beneath a man’s suit, and who smile in recognition: butch.
At the same time, she is claimed by the transmasculine community, who retell the rebbe’s story in male pronouns, recognizing the person whom the Hasidim of the 1800s could not: transman. A queer Jewish zine published a piece about Hannah Rachel, with handwritten black ink correcting the female pronouns, calling the reader’s attention to the supposed injustice we do when we use female pronouns for this figure. One naturally must wonder what Hannah Rachel would have thought about the correction, if it is in fact a correction.
The push and pull between butch and trans has been described by Jack/Judith Halberstam as a “border war.” The choice of words may seem drastic, but ask someone who stands in that liminal space and you may be surprised to find the term fits. The term, while conjuring the image of territorialism, also serves another purpose, as Halberstam explains, “A border war suggests that the border is at best slippery and permeable” (from Female Masculinity, 1998).
And many indeed have passed over that border and back again. Queer Jewish writer S. Bear Bergman, who once identified as butch and is now a self-described gender-jammer, has written about this blurry zigzag that we draw between butch and trans. Bear wryly purports to clarify the issue for us, “Butches are not beginner FTMs, except that sometimes they are, but it’s not a continuum except when it is” (from Butch is a Noun, 2006).
And, of course, there are others for whom the distinction between butch and trans makes no sense. Redwolf Painter, a Heyoka writer, asks plaintively, “Can I tear myself apart and put myself back together to name what part of me is butch and what part trans?” (from “Split Myself Apart,” 2011).
To be sure, the once-forgotten Maid of Ludomir has no voice with which to clarify her identity for us, nor would she even understand the identities we assign her, lacking the century of context which makes such conversation comprehensible. Ultimately, her legacy will elude the specifics. Both butch lesbians and transmen who are seeking a clear Jewish precedent will have to turn the page and search on. Or maybe it is my own desire to claim her that is speaking: I want a Jewish ancestor of my own, someone who has straddled uncomfortably the border, an arbitrary demarcation that is at once real and imaginary, between butch and trans.
One thing that is easily recognizable, however, is that the Maid of Ludomir was, without a doubt, queer, and that this is an appropriate time both in the year and in the arc of our history to reflect on the legacy of this curious ancestor, wherever our imaginations or needs may lead us in that contemplation.