June, 1997, Cincinnati, OH
It was the end of a journey. It was the beginning of a transition. I had spent five intense years of study, learning, mistakes, and growth at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. Those years had transformed me from a college prep to a religious leader. (Well, a potential religious leader.) The following day, I would be ordained “Rabbi.” The journey had been difficult, and it was just short of a miracle that I completed all my academic requirements in time for Ordination. I had secured a job as Assistant Rabbi of University Synagogue in Los Angeles. I was exuberant. And I was terrified.
Jews love to mark transition with ritual ceremony. So on this “Erev-S’micha” (day before Ordination), three soon-to-be rabbis joined me on a pilgrimage to the Cincinnati Mikveh. We had decided to prepare texts for group study after individual immersions.
Now the Cincinnati Mikveh is not your glamorous health spa. The space was dark and even a bit moldy at the time. But we had it to ourselves, and we created holy space. I showered, carefully cleaning my body and mind in preparation for immersion. I was nervous and even admittedly embarrassed at the thought of removing my clothes before my colleagues. I waited my turn, and then entered the mikveh chamber.
Standing at the top of the steps, I wanted to enter the mayim-chaim (living waters) slowly and deliberately. I stepped down. The water was lukewarm. Another step. I got goose bumps. Finally, I descended all the way and carefully lifted my feet allowing the river of transformation to fully acknowledge me. And as I recited the Shehechianu, I closed my eyes. Tranquility embraced me.
Soon after, the four of us sat clad in towels, studying Pirkei Avot, Midrash, and Commentaries. After discussing the voices of our people, we then shared the texts of our souls. What a beautiful moment it was. We had all come so far. Soon it was my turn.
“You know, “I began, “I was about to say that this was my first time to the mikveh. But I’ve actually immersed once before …”
I continued to relate the story about the day I “came out.”
August, 1994, Great Barrington, MA
It was the summer of 1994, and I was working as an Educator at the UAHC Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. I kept myself busy, and I dreaded being alone. For whenever I was alone, I would ask myself, as I had every day of my life since I was sixteen, “Am I gay?”
I hated asking that question, and I constantly pushed the answer deep into the canyons of my heart. I could not bear denying the truth any longer. Too many nights without sleep had already tortured my soul. Something had to change. I needed to take a stand. So I arranged a day off with two close friends. I had it all planned out. We would stay up late and engage in a deep conversation.
And I would come out to them.
But things never seem to happen the way we plan.
The three of us left camp in the evening and soon arrived at a country hotel. As they relaxed, my heart began to pound harder and harder. How was I supposed to do this? I wanted so very much for them to ask the question of revelation, as God asked Adam in the Garden of Eden, “Aye-ka (where are you)?” And I wanted to respond with the strength of Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah when they shouted, “Hineini! (Here I am!).”
But they never asked. And I never answered. Another sleepless night.
The next day, the three of us drove up through the Berkshires to Pittsfield where we saw a movie. “OK,” I thought, “after the movie we’ll talk.” But after the movie we ate. “OK, after we eat, we’ll talk.” But after that came more excuses. My friends didn’t understand why I was so reclusive. We then drove over to a small lake nestled in the rolling hills of Southwest Massachusetts.
My friends fell asleep in the car. They were bonded. I was apart. And I was jealous. So I got out of the car and walked into the serenity of an August afternoon.
I was alone. And I was a nervous wreck.
But I took a deep breath, and for the first time in my life, as I saw my reflection in the lake, I got myself to say out loud, “I might be a gay man.” I think I said it twice. And as the words lingered on my tongue, an incredible emotion enveloped me.
Just allowing for the possibility that I might be gay released me from those chains of years of denial. I was alone, yet I was no longer afraid of being alone. I undressed, and I entered that lake. And as soon as my head slid beneath her surface, I transformed the lake into a mikveh.
And that mikveh transformed me. It was glorious!
When I finished, I dried myself off, dressed, and got back into the car. I woke up my friends, but didn’t tell them a thing. I didn’t need to anymore. I came out to myself, and that was a big step. Later, in the appropriate time, I would come out to them.
That was my first trip to the mikveh.
June, 1997, Cincinnati, OH
As I finished my story, my colleagues looked on. I had never before shared that experience.
I had never before even thought to share it. Sure, they knew I was gay. But my account put into perspective that Jewish ritual can sanctify all of life’s passages.
The following day we marched into the historic Plum Street Temple to the call of the shofar. As Hebrew Union College president, Rabbi Shelly Zimmerman, reached out to ordain me with the title of “Rav b’Yisrael,” I said to myself, “Hineini! I am here, and I am ready!”
2001, Los Angeles, CA
While my first trip to the mikveh released me, my second trip to the mikveh transformed me. I haven’t yet immersed a third time. I am waiting for my next life-cycle, which will occur when my life-partner and I stand beneath a huppah in the near future. And yet I am at the mikveh throughout the year, accompanying others who make time to nurture life transitions through Jewish ceremony. Each of them has a story. Each of them has a journey. And each of them has answered the question, “Aye-ka (where are you)?”
Epilogue: 2015, Culver City, CA
Two days before Ron Galperin and I were married in 2002, we immersed as one in the mikveh.
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Last week, Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Private first class Bradley Manning, made headlines. Her announcement that she would be living as a woman eclipsed the news of the previous day–her 35 year prison sentence for leaking classified government documents.
So while the mainstream media was tripping over itself, The Forward was wrapping up a terrific series exploring transgender and Jewish identity in all of its wondrous complexity. The series looked at how Jewish summer camps welcome gender-nonconforming campers, the link between gender transition and conversion for trans Jews by choice, mikveh rituals for transitioning, transgender rabbis who paved the way as well as rabbis still in rabbinical school.
Tomorrow, we talk with editor Naomi Zeveloff about what inspired her to produce this series and what she learned while working on it.
For Transgender Converts, Changing Gender and Finding Faith Come Together
For some transgender converts, turning to Judaism is intrinsically linked to gender transition. The process of soul-searching unearths one truth, then another.
Marking Gender Transition in the Mikveh
When Max Strassfeld helped write a ritual for a friend’s transition, he mapped contemporary ideas about gender onto a very traditional Jewish space — the mikveh.
When Jewish Transgender Teens Come Out of Closet, Many Leave Camp Behind
Summer camp has not always been a welcoming place for transgender Jewish youth. That’s changing as new camps spring up — and existing ones try to be more inclusive.
First Generation of Transgender Rabbis Claims Place at Bimah
When it comes to transgender Jews, the community is in a moment of transition.
New Generation of Transgender Rabbis Ties Jewish Practice and Gender Change
The number of transgender rabbis in America will soon double — from three to six. The next generation is blazing a trail with a unique approach to gender identity and Jewish spirituality.
Emily Aviva: Creating a Jewish Community for Trans Women
(For readers of this blog, you probably recognize Emily her from her deeply personal and thoughtful blog posts like Wrapping Myself in the Fringes and Learning to Return to Myself.)