Yesterday we introduced you to the great new series on transgender Jewish identity published by the Forward. It’s the first comprehensive exploration of this topic we’ve seen by a mainstream paper in the Jewish community.
I spoke with Naomi Zeveloff, editor of the series, while it was in its early stage of conception. I caught up with her again, curious to learn more about the impetus for this groundbreaking series and what she learned while working on it.
What inspired you to put together this series on transgender Jewish identity?
At the Forward and elsewhere, I have done a lot of reporting on sexuality, gender identity and religion. A few Jewish LGBT advocates told me that transgender issues are the “new frontier” for the Jewish community. I was also seeing a lot of stories about transgender people and issues in the secular press at the time. This got me thinking about the experience of transgender Jews — did they feel welcome in liberal Jewish settings and elsewhere? Were they creating community of their own? Did Jewish practice facilitate gender transition? These were massive questions to start out with. Luckily, I had an assistant to help me: Michael Berson, the 16-year-old son of a Forward board member, did extensive research on the topic for me. From there, I developed the ideas that became the five stories that we ran in our Transgender and Jewish series.
Did anything surprise you in your work on this? What stories most impacted you?
I was surprised by how forthcoming my sources were. I expected to have a very difficult time with access, given the sensitivity of the issue, but I found that most of the trans Jews I interviewed were willing and even eager to speak with me. It’s a very small, connected community, and, I think, once one person felt comfortable speaking with me then other people opened up as well.
Learning more about gender transition was a moving experience. It’s a very serious undertaking, and demands deep introspection. I have tremendous respect for people who transition genders, who take it upon themselves to know and understand themselves at such a profound level.
Some of my favorite stories came from Rabbi Elliot Kukla, the first out transgender rabbi, who told me about doing pastoral work with elderly cisgender and transgender Jews. He told me, “I say as a joke that to a lot of elders I am not more surprising than an iPhone. It’s like, this is what a phone looks like now, and I guess this is what a rabbi looks like now.” Kukla said that people underestimate the capacity for empathy in others. But he shows up with empathy and expects and is very often given empathy in return. I found that attitude very impacting, and very hopeful.
What has the response been to the series?
Our series got some national attention, from GLAAD and from the folks at Sirius XM, where I was a guest on the Mike Signorile show about LGBT issues. I haven’t heard much from transgender readers of the Forward. I’m very curious to know what they liked and didn’t like about the series, and what they feel we could have done differently or do in addition. I see this series as a jumping off point for the Forward to report more comprehensively on gender and sexuality.
Want to see more reporting on transgender Jewish identity at the Forward?
Have a comment/compliment/complaint about any of the articles? Leave a note in the comments or shoot Naomi an email.