Living in Israel, for me, meant mastering the art of feigning ignorance. “Ani lo mevin, ani lo mevin. Rak midaber englit v sfardit,” I would often say. “I don’t understand, I don’t understand. I only speak English and Spanish.”
But I always knew exactly what the stranger in the kibbutz cafeteria or the shop-owner in the shuk or the security guard by the bathroom was saying as he chuckled to himself and asked, “Atah ben o bat?” with eyebrows raised. His Hebrew translates to, “Are you a boy or a girl?” but really what he’s getting at is, “Come on, really?” He’s reminding me that I am a puzzle to be figured out for his amusement, and that because I am a puzzle (read: not a human), it is A-OK to ask me rude questions.
Throughout my stay in Israel, strangers and friends alike would ask me this question in an array of rude ways. And though I often felt hurt and disappointed by the ease with which those around me seemed to prioritize a few laughs and quick satiation of their curiosities over my well-being, as I look back at my stint in Israel, it’s difficult for me to blame these perpetrators. As far as I, someone raised in America who lived in Israel for only six months and is and was far from culturally integrated into Israeli society, can tell, gender separation is the law of the land of Israel; it’s as Israeli as hummus or yelling.
Upon an emotional visit to the Kotel, the Western Wall, arguably the most sacred site to the Jewish people and a prominent international symbol of Judaism, my many experiences of gender alienation in Israel fermented and constellated, and I became painfully aware of the pervasive nature of a binary gender system in Israel. I was skeptical of a Kotel visit, but the visit was on the itinerary of a seminar about tensions between the religious and the secular in Israeli society I was taking part in that weekend, so it felt imminent. I had been two years prior, seeking spiritual rebirth only to be severely disappointed by the realization upon arriving that it would not be safe for me to be on either side of the mechitza. Though as I arrived at the Kotel for my visit I deemed it safe to enter the men’s side of the mechitza, I decided that I did not want to participate in and benefit from a structure that not only did many of my queer and trans* friends and siblings not have access to, but that seemed to serve as a critical aid to the subjugation of women and the denial of their right to freedom of religious expression. So I remained on the stairs above the wall, and cynically shook my head back and forth for a few minutes before I started to weep. This supposed scene of intense holiness was in reality an instrument of the most unholy of unholy: oppression. I felt like giving up on my Judaism. I had put so much energy and care into drawing meaning from that history and culture, but in that moment it felt like it was all for nothing. I had given so much to make Judaism and Jewish peoplehood “work” for me as someone at the margins of that culture and community, and it felt that all I had received in return was a reminder that I am unwanted and don’t belong.
Things felt bleak for me in Israel as a trans* person. But that’s not to say that being trans* and Jewish or trans* and in Israel is totally and unendingly disappointing. During my time in Israel, I met so, so many wonderful, open, and warm-hearted individuals committed to building an Israeli society and culture here rooted in a deep, deep sense of equality. Time and time again, I was reached out to in committed, meaningful ways by a variety of queer people, many of whom I was previously only peripherally connected to. These connections, these conversations were crucially rejuvenating and inspiring for me.
As I, a young adult, move further and further from my world of childhood and plunge into the wider reality of the planet, I see and feel how pervasively messed up most things here on earth are, and it often feels crippling. I fall into feeling that the actions I take to make this planet a hospitable place for everyone and everything it contains are meaningless, futile – just tiny, tiny drops in a large, large bucket. But as I reflect on the connections I forged with LGBTQ people and our allies in Israel, and I realize and appreciate how much more at home these people made me feel, I start to understand how these connections can mean the world to the folks involved. And though I still struggle to stomach the world around me, I feel less futile, and more inspired to keep reaching out and keep building just and whole communities for the sake of my health, the health of my loved ones, the health of my communities, and the health of the planet.