I can’t help but think about the words maternal and motherhood; and their ‘opposites,’ paternal and fatherhood. As a new parent of a beautiful baby, I’ve been thinking about these words a lot, especially as other people try to make sense of the connection between my child and me.
In my case, as a female born transgender person who lives in a middle space defined merely as Taan, I find the word maternal describes me. It’s odd to think that a word representing mother and mommy or mom is how I am aligning. Because, those titles of mother, mommy and mom are not ways I feel comfortable being called. Goodness, words sure do get confusing.
Looking closer at the word maternal, unpacking it so to say, brings a new understanding. When I think of the word maternal, nurturing, loving, kind, present, caring, gentle, sensitive, giving, generous, warm-hearted and tender all come to mind. All these adjectives of softness, we are told represent what is means to be a mom, mother or mommy. In fact, I feel all these adjectives for my baby without being a mommy.
Thus lies the assumption that softness can only be given from a woman. I associate with these adjectives and thus being maternal. And yet, I am not a woman; I am Taan.
My love and care for my baby reaches beyond English. It reaches far beyond gender.
Maternal I am, parent of my baby, I love you with all my heart. No words will get in the way of this truth.
I’m the good Jewish doctor your grandparents always envisioned you would marry.
Well, sort of.
Perhaps they didn’t anticipate that I’d be transgender. My name is Tamar, and I’m a trans*man. I kept my birth name, as feminine as it is, and of which people never cease to ask me about. I kept my name because I love it, it is who I am, and I can’t envision myself being anyone but Tamar.
In good-ol’ Jewish fashion, I was named after deceased relatives, and from an early age was instilled with pride in both the name and its/my heritage. I was born and raised in a Conservative-meets-Reform Jewish household, with separate milk/meat dishes, somewhat regular shul attendance (at least earlier on), and a strong sense of Jewish cultural pride.
My Mom is a progressive, American-born, self-proclaimed Zionist; my Abba, an old-European traditionalist, first-generation Israeli, son of Holocaust survivors. It was an interesting (and confusing, to say the least) childhood, yet helped mold me into the strong, hard-working, morally driven, community-oriented, proud trans*man that I am today.
Being Jewish and being trans* are two huge facets of my identity. I’ve been asked if my trans* identity is at odds with my Jewish identity, and the answer is simple: No. The Judaism that I was raised in focused little on rules and religiosity, and instead focused on strength/resilience, cultural pride, and providing a moral basis for interacting with the world. I was taught the value of family, community, hard-work, and tzedakah. It is this Jewish foundation that drives my work both as a physician and as a trans* activist and educator. I value my chosen-family, trans* community, the folks who paved the way for me, and the folks who will follow after.
My work with the non-profit and upcoming book, Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, encapsulates this pride, thankfulness, celebration, education, and giving spirit. The book is not just a bunch of bound pages, it is documentation of our trans* history, culture, community, and resilience. It is a celebration of any and all trans* and gender nonconforming identities, a celebration of paths already paved and ones just beginning.
It is movement forward. It is never forgetting where we came from, and to where we are going.
When Jordyn & Becky first met, they were just starting college. Jordyn had dredlocks. Becky’s time was split between the Engineering Department and the Crew Team. Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake were still dating. And, Becky’s preferred pronouns were “she” and “her.” Now, 13 years later, all of those things have changed. But their friendship hasn’t. They sat down to talk about their friendship, life, and gender.
Jordyn: I think an important qualifier about our friendship is that it’s one of those fantastic ones where we can (and have) gone months without talking—but we can always pick it back up pretty seamlessly. And, while that’s great for the sake of knowing we’re always out there for each other, it does mean that we’ve missed big moments in each other’s lives. Like, for instance, when you started identifying as gender queer and trans.
Becky: That is an important thing about our relationship. And that’s true. When we first met I identified as a lesbian. It wasn’t really until I started Rabbinical School six years ago that I started to really explore ideas of gender. It was a gradual transition, starting with the way I had my haircut and what clothes I wore, eventually getting to the way I played around with and used pronouns.
Jordyn: I remember a few years ago being part of an email thread where someone said something—in reference to you—along the lines of “and he is going to…” I had to stop and check in. I wanted to be on the right page. Wondering whether or not I was going to support you, or accept you, or be there for you wasn’t the question, it was more making sure I wasn’t messing up with my language.
Becky: And language is really hard. We aren’t socialized to have control over our pronouns; having a conversation about language is a two-step process—first, discussing how we teach language and how we can chose the language we use, and second, taking that step to choose an appropriate pronoun.
Jordyn: And, I’ve messed it up—far more than once…which is really hard for me. It’s hard as an ally, it’s hard as your friend, and it’s hard because I know using the wrong pronoun is being disrespectful and unsupportive. But sometimes it’s that force of habit that makes things challenging.
Becky: We’ve definitely had conversations where you’ve started by saying “I don’t want to mess this up, but….” And, look, as long as you (or anyone) are learning and trying, that’s what I ask for. I don’t necessarily want to have a 15 minute conversation with someone about how they feel guilty each time they mess up my pronoun. Most importantly, we have to trust each other, and trust that our friendship is strong enough that one misused pronoun isn’t going to destroy it.
Jordyn: Still, I don’t want to put you in a position where you’re forced to constantly be a teacher.
Becky: But, I’m going to be a rabbi—being out there as a teacher is a role I’ve stepped into for myself. I don’t ever want to close the conversation about pronouns, or being queer. That being said, it can be exhausting.
Jordyn: Do you have advice, maybe with your rabbi hat on?
Becky: In thinking about being compassionate with someone about getting my pronouns correct, the biblical concept of “lifnei iver” comes to mind.
Becky: Leviticus 19:14 says: “You shall not curse a deaf person. You shall not place a stumbling block before a blind person, and you shall fear your God. I am the Lord.” As a person who identifies as trans and genderqueer and whose pronoun (intentionally) creates dissonance with my name, I try and remember that those whom I am encountering may be going through their own two-step process. First, they may be deaf towards the issues of gender and gender identity. I might be the first trans* person they meet. Rashi teaches that though the deaf person is specifically named, we can extend this verse to all those who are alive. I cannot curse someone because of their lack of knowledge. Similarly, withholding my pronoun or not correcting someone is putting a stumbling block in front of them. In the other direction, the person learning about gender or my preferred pronoun needs to acknowledge the stumbling blocks that exist in front of them. They need to know that they will stumble, and that unlike the blind person the Torah refers to, they need not be willfully blind.
Interested in learning more? Check out Becky’s interview with Jennie Roffman, a board member at Congregation Kehillath Israel, reflecting on Joy Ladin’s Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, or some of Keshet’s Trans* resources.
This past Saturday, Keshet Staff Member Joanna Ware joined Temple Hillel B’nai Torah to deliver a d’var Torah on gender justice and gender variance in Jewish text, as well as the effects of transphobia today. We have shared the text of Joanna’s d’var Torah here.
Shabbat Shalom! Thank you to Rabbi Penzner for the invitation to bring some Torah to all of you today. Rabbi Penzner asked me to speak in honor of the other holiday we’re marking today, International Women’s Day, and how it reminds us to work toward gender equality and justice. First though, I want to start with the text we just read.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, is the first in the book of Leviticus, and it lays out for us a set of laws of ritual, sacrificial preparation. Sacrifices were the ancient Israelite’s way of honoring and nurturing their sacred relationship with the divine. We nurture relationships every day, with our loved ones and with what we understand to be holy and sacred, and while we no longer do so with ritual sacrifices, today prayer, study, mitzvot, acts of loving kindness, and tikkun olam serve as our stand-in for temple sacrifice; our means of nurturing our relationship with God, with Sacredness. What Vayikra reminds us, however, is that this relationship isn’t accidental or happenstance, and that God models for us an expectation of intentionally stepping in to relationship. The opening text of this Parsha, the opening text of the entire book of Leviticus, reads:
וַיִּקְרָא, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֵלָיו, מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד
Vayikra al-Moshe, v’yedaber Adonai elav, meyohal mo’ed
And God called out to Moses, and Adonai spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting
We have a curious repetition here in the narrative, first God calls out to Moses, and then God speaks to him. Why both? Rashi teaches that God’s initial calling out to Moses is indicative of a loving relationship, of an invitation into an intentional, purposeful relationship; this text is read in juxtaposition to how God speaks to the prophet Balaam, where we are told that God “happens upon” Balaam; it is accidental rather than intentional. And then? We are taught that God’s relationship with Moses is loving, whereas God’s relationship with Balaam is “impure.” So we have one piece of a model for building loving relationships: act with intention, thoughtfulness, and care. Continue reading
When you think “Salem, Massachusetts” understanding and equality probably aren’t the first things that come to mind. My guess is that mention of the town is more likely to conjure images of witches and hysteria. Yet, this small town outside of Boston is taking action to protect the values of diversity, equality, and respect- and they did so without you noticing.
Earlier this week, Salem’s Mayor Kim Driscoll signed an anti-discrimination ordinance specifically aimed at protecting the rights of trans* individuals. Over 40 organizations joined together to shepherd the ordinance, bringing together people of faith, local politicians, and advocates for social justice to take a small but significant step towards making the world a safer and stronger place.
Mayor Driscoll celebrated the news, sharing “There are no second class citizens in Salem and we proved that we believe that… with the signing of our Non-Discrimination Ordinance helping to extend protection against discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression in the matter of public accommodations… Over 40 local groups, organizations and individuals came together to help advocate for this ordinance which was unanimously adopted by the Salem City Council, once again demonstrating how much our community values diversity, equality and respect. Yep, we have come a long way since 1692!”
The ordinance was spearheaded by “No Place for Hate,” an Anti-Defamation League campaign. The ADL- which originated as a Jewish response to antisemitism- concentrates on anti-bullying initiatives through the No Place for Hate campaign.
Proving that home is where your values are, Salem follows Boston, Cambridge, Northampton, and Amherst to become the fifth community in Massachusetts to take an active stance on gender inclusion. My question? When will the rest of Massachusetts—and the country—take similar action. And, what can we do to galvanize action around this important issue of social justice?
As a resident of Salem, I often get questions about why I chose to live outside of the Boston city limits. While my answers usually boil down to issues of affordability, proximity to the ocean, and a love of the local arts scene, I’m proud to be able to point to this moment of inclusion. Our communities reflect who we are as people, and asking our elected officials to take a stand on inclusion is more than just an LGBTQ value, or even a Jewish value… it is the type of action that makes the place you live home.
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When I was 21, I came out as transgender and identified as a boy. Simultaneously I also came out as frum. At the same time that I began binding, I began wearing tzitzit. I took on a name I had used with friends in high school while also taking on the obligation of t’filah. I asked people to use the pronouns he/his and him when referring to me and when I was bestowed aliyot at shul, I made sure the gabbai said Simcha ben Rachel Dvorah v’Eben instead of Simcha bat.
After over a decade of feeling uncomfortable in Jewish ritual spaces despite my desire to nurture my neshama (soul), I realized how large a role gender identity played in my ability to move within Jewish spaces in general.
When I moved to Brooklyn six years ago, I sought out different entrances into Jewish community. Upon attending a prospective members’ gathering at a local Conservative shul with my then-partner, I was unexpectedly met with confusion from established members. Addressing my cis-female (i.e. not transgender) partner, a middle-aged man asked “Is this your brother?” referring to me. He was reading me through heterosexual and cis-gender eyes, or from his assumptions about the world as a straight and cis-man. Instead of appearing to him as I was, a 23-year-old queer person with his partner, the middle-aged man rendered me a teenager tagging along with his older sister.
One shabbes whilst attempting to mingle with members of the same shul, I struck up conversation with a middle-aged straight couple. “Where does your family live?” they asked. Slightly confused, I responded that my parents are in Boston but that my brother lives around the corner. After a few more questions with the kind of subtle condescension adults normally intone when speaking to children, they asked if I had ever met Ari. I knew Ari to be a young boy of about twelve who attended the shul with his father. I looked at them perplexed as to why they felt I needed to meet a child. “No,” I said. “I don’t know Ari.” As I endured this well-meaning couple introducing me to Ari before taking leave to talk to other adults, I realized they had read me as belonging to Ari’s peer group.
While I wasn’t turned off from attending the shul’s services, further similar interactions did alienate me from attempting to participate in their community.
Over the two years I vigorously navigated frumkeit as a transgender person I tried various community settings from black sheep Orthodox to suburban chavurah and found the assumption, and often, the law of the gender binary, cis-gender experience and heterosexuality overwhelming. Too overwhelming. Eventually I found it easier to just daven (pray) and carry out mitzvot alone. A position contrary to the intention and spirit of Judaism.
Later still, I chose to depart from frumkeit and Jewish community altogether. Instead I invested my energy into Brooklyn’s radical queer community and found deeply restorative reflections of myself in others. In my newfound circle I was met with more mochin d’gadlut, more expanded consciousness, than I had ever found in a Jewish community. Instead of battling continuous streams of assumptions and straight-tinted goggles, I experienced the possibility of community constantly working on creating awareness of the many different kinds of plights people deal with every day.
Three years ago I helped found the transgender and Jewish band Schmekel (I play drums). The project combines Jewish and punk sounds with Jewish and queer topics. Through Schmekel I have found an entrance into Jewish community on my terms. Performing and talking about the occupation of two currently divergent identities has helped in manifesting a union. In turn, Schmekel has manifested community. This became glaringly obvious to me at an early show we played on the first floor of a queer house. Our last song of the night was New Men with Old Man Names, a celebratory tune intended to poke fun at our transmasculine friends who selected dated appellations like Harvey, Enoch and Amos. The song ends with Hava Nagilah. As we reached the point of launching into the classic Jewish tune, the already packed room made up of mostly queer Jews erupted into a frenzied mosh-hora-pit. As I furiously banged out a two-step, the floor bounced beneath me and the crowd shouted along with such ruach (spirit), I couldn’t distinguish my lead singer’s voice from that of the spontaneous community that had formed in front of me.
Whenever we play the kitschy and beloved Hora song, the always mostly queer crowd instinctively leads us through as if unleashing a lifetime’s worth of alienation around a tradition so profoundly loved. It is from this place that I have begun to pick up the pieces of the emunah (faith) my neshama intrinsically makes home in.
Read an interview with members of the band Schmekel here.
Gut yontef, L’shanah Tovah, Shabbat Shalom!
Before I begin, I want to offer my deepest thanks to all of my beloved Sha’ar Zahav community for the opportunity to be here with you this year. It is a privilege and a joy, and at this time of year I am especially grateful to God and to all of you.
We stand here tonight without knowing quite where we are. Or more precisely, we don’t know quite when we are. Shabbat has come in; the sun is just gone over the horizon. During this evening’s service light gives way to dark, and the old year and the new year meet. We cannot ever pinpoint the exact moment when the old year disappears forever. But we know that there is a time at sundown when it is no longer the past year and it is not yet the year to come. It is old and new, both and neither one, at the same time. For fleeting minutes on the evening of Rosh Hashanah, time and certainty are suspended, and we who have come to pray are lifted up into twilight and its mystery. Continue reading
This was the d’var Torah (discourse) I gave at the Jewish service on Friday night at the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, 14 June 2013. In it, I build on and try to give a preliminary answer to a question I started to explore some time ago, as one conference participant put it, “What does a gal do with her bar mitzvah tallit?”
The time was two o’clock in the morning, and I was about to complete the crafting project I’d been working on all evening. I sat on the couch with my scissors in one hand and the cloth in the other. All I finally had to do to finish the project was to cut four pieces of thread. A simple task, nothing to it. My hand holding the scissors hesitated slightly; my brain became uncertain. Suddenly I broke down crying uncontrollably, sobbing, unable to make the final cuts, unable to complete this project. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
A Small Revolution in a Synagogue Book Group
This past January, Hebrew College invited poet and scholar Joy Ladin to speak during our Winter Seminar on Feminist Theology, Theory, and Practice. Weaving her personal story of transition with a clearly articulated theology, Ladin held the community’s attention for over an hour. I sat in the front row, typing notes and being held by her gentle, soft-spoken way of being. As a trans* identified student, I was overwhelmed by the ways my story and my experience of the divine were being seen and lifted up for what felt like the first time.
At the same time as Ladin’s story was being lifted up in the Hebrew College community, I was beginning to struggle with the lack of LGBTQ voices at my internship. As the rabbinic intern at Congregation Kehillath Israel (KI) in Brookline, MA, I attend weekly minyanim, teach parsha (the weekly Torah portion) study, lead Junior Congregation on Shabbat morning, and teach the 4th/5th grade religious school class. The KI community has welcomed me enthusiastically and has revealed itself to be more diverse and open than I could ever have imagined, but as the year progressed, I began to notice the way in which the communal discourse continued to tell the story of the presumed status quo: heteronormative, Shabbat observant, two-parent and multiple children families.
I felt the weight of my self-inflicted censorship and lack of other LGBTQ-identified folks and vocal allies. As I struggled to articulate how being present in the KI community was difficult for me, I heard Ladin’s voice again, this time suggesting that I share her story as a way to bring a different voice into communal conversations. I asked my supervisor, Rabbi Rachel Silverman and a small group of board members, who had already begun discussing how we might make the community more inclusive, to read Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders together.
What follows are the reflections of one of the board members, Jennie Roffman. I am grateful to Jennie for her open-hearted and unequivocal support throughout my year at Congregation Kehillath Israel. Continue reading