We’re incredibly grateful to Yiscah for sharing this excerpt from her forthcoming book, 40 Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living. She describes her book as her “memoir of the joys and struggles with my own spirituality, gender identity, and commitment to living true to myself.” You can learn more about Yishcah here and learn more about the book here.
On July 3, 1981, I wake up to my thirtieth birthday stressed, exhausted, deflated. I wake up to this nightmare of reality every day. I ask myself, “Why is this day different than any other day?” I answer, “It isn’t.” I ask myself, “Am I really in Patchogue? Why am I not waking up in Israel? Is this really my life?” I recall how ten years earlier I celebrated my twentieth birthday on my first visit to Israel. Why is this day different than any other day? Today, on my thirtieth birthday, I am more aware than ever before of my own suffering.
Each morning when I realize I am awake, as I observe the Jewish tradition, I utter a statement of thanksgiving to God for the blessing of waking up to another day of life. The very first words a Jew utters, while still in bed, are “modeh ahni”—I thank you. Each morning I somehow muster up the wherewithal to utter modeh ahni. The very first two-syllable word that my breath releases into the world each morning belies the truth. My life is a curse. Even grammar betrays me. The Hebrew language is gender defined. So, not only am I saying “modeh,” thank you, and not meaning it, I am using the masculine form of the verb, and not “modah,” in the feminine. Even my lie is lying. While my lack of thankfulness is the essence of the lie, even the way I express it is not in truth.
I imagine what my life would be like if I could say modah ahni and mean it. I imagine what miracle it would take for me to wake up feeling grateful for the blessing of life, rather than cursed. I imagine waking up so grateful that my very first words would be to simply say to my Creator, “thank You,” and to really mean it! Impossible!
And I know. I know exactly what my life would have to be like for that to happen, and I also know that I might as well dream to sprout wings and soar upward into the sky. In those years, the reality that my body could actually become that of a woman, literally, totally evaded me. I had no idea that as a caterpillar, entrapped in my own skin, I could indeed undergo a metamorphosis and emerge into a butterfly.
So, I wake up in hiding, I go through the motions of the day in hiding, and I go to sleep in hiding. I am petrified that someone will find out who I really am. After all, I myself am petrified of who I really am!
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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Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR), memorializes trans individuals who have died because of anti-transgender discrimination and victimization. It occurs annually on and around November 20 each year. We invite you to explore, learn, and participate with your Jewish community this year. Below are some resources to get you started. And if you missed our earlier post by Rafi Daugherty, on why marking this day is important, you can find it here.
Laura Thor spoke these words at Transgender Day of Remembrance last year, at a service held at Jefferson Unitarian Church, Golden, Colorado. Laura will be speaking again this year at this event-we invite you to join us.
How many of you have seen the YouTube video of Lana Wachowski’s acceptance speech fat the 2012 Human Rights Campaign gala ?
Lana has grabbed the brass ring, found the Holy Grail, or, as she says, won the Lotto. In her speech to the HRC she speaks of being loved in her entirety, of finally being known for who she is… for being seen.
Four times she returns to the power of being seen or failing to be seen and recognized for who she is.
She speaks of the universal, essential need for each person to be seen, not only in order to be known and loved, but in order to exist at all.
To find our place and to fit in, we have to be recognized as belonging. We will never trust we are lovable unless we feel known in our entirety, and that can’t happen unless we show ourselves, make ourselves visible. Continue reading
When I was growing up, as a little girl in the Orthodox Jewish community, I would stare longingly over the mechitza feeling betrayed by G-d for giving me a body that didn’t feel congruent with my soul. I never imagined that one day I would feel right in my body, accepted in my community, and able to walk freely in the world as a Jewish man.
Observed annually on November 20th, Transgender Day of Remembrance was established as a day set aside for remembering the lives of those gender non-conforming individuals who were viciously murdered for being themselves. It is sometimes hard for us to make the leap between thinking about people being murdered and what that has to do with our community or with us. We think, “No one I know would ever murder a transgender person!” While that may be true, I challenge us all to ask ourselves:
What else can we take away from this day?
Most transgender people spend years hiding and fearing “coming out” because they do not have a community where they know they will be accepted. Many transgender people, like myself, have used drugs and alcohol to numb the pain of being “different,” and even contemplate suicide to escape from making the heart-wrenching choice between family and being true to themselves. Sometimes I wonder how my life would have been different if I could have known as a child that I could be myself and also be a part of my community. . . .
I hope this day inspires us to ask ourselves:
*How can we make our community the type of community where a transgender child or adult will feel that they can safely express who they are and not only will we not shun them, we will love and embrace them, and encourage them down their chosen path?
*How can we use this day to bring an end to the silence around gender expression that might be allowing bullying in our Hebrew schools?
*How might we bring awareness to the issue of bathroom safety for gender non-conforming individuals in our institutions?
*How can we widen the arms of our communities’ embrace so that it can enfold the most stigmatized and ostracized individuals and bring them closer to G-d, to Judaism, and to themselves?
I ask you to take a moment to think about how you might use this day to find a way to make a difference. Next week we’ll share resources to help the Jewish community mark this day.
This gift guide is specially tailored to lovers of rainbow pride, Judaism, and the lucky individuals who live the intersection of both. We’ve got everything from silly to serious. Take a look!
Hail your rainbow pride every time you walk through the door with this beautiful Metal and Glass Rainbow Mezuzah ($39.99).
The Purim Superhero ($7.16) is a children’s book about Purim that just happens to feature a two-dad family. We love how unremarkable that fact of little Nate’s life is. Oh, and it’s a really cute story involving an alien costume.
Sport your pride with this LGBT pendant, Rainbow Ray Star of David Necklace ($15.99). Makes a great gift.
Following an ancient tradition, Torah Queeries ($23.40) brings together some of the world’s leading rabbis, scholars, and writers to interpret the Torah through a queer lens. This incredibly rich collection unites the voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and straight-allied writers, including some of the most central figures in contemporary American Judaism.
Keep Your Wives Away from Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires ($12.50) gives voice to genderqueer Jewish women tell the stories of their coming out or being closeted, living double lives or struggling to maintain an integrated “single life” in relationship to traditional Judaism.
A Queer and Pleasant Danger ($13.13) tells the true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology, and leaves 12 years later to become the lovely lady she is today, Kate Bornstein.
Milk ($6.79) is a biographical film based on the life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk–the first openly gay person elected to public office in California.
We hope these picks help you narrow down your gift search for yourself, your family, and your friends!
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.