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.
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.)
This summer, Habonim Dror Camp Na’aleh did something unprecedented at Jewish camp – we had a transgender bunk counselor. At Camp Na’aleh we live according to the values of Habonim Dror and the kibbutz movement. Campers and staff at Na’aleh integrate the values of cooperation, equality and activism into their everyday experience at camp. So when I was approached during the past year by Amit Schwalb, a transgender staff member, about shifting his role from garden specialist to bunk counselor, my first instinct was not to ask, “Are we ready to have a transgender staff member living with kids.” It was to ask, “How can we make this happen?”
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
When teens transitions to a new gender, what happens to the rest of the family? In November, we shared a post from the perspective of a daughter whose father transitioned to being a woman; now, we’re bringing you the first of two essays written by a sibling. Sophie, a high schooler whose sister (now brother) transitioned within the last few years, writes here about what the beginning of those changes felt like for her as a sister. In her next essay, she’ll discuss her brother’s eventual surgery.
I would first like to start out by saying I love my brother.
There is nothing I wouldn’t do for him. In my life, he is the person I have spent the most time with. Unlike most siblings, we are best friends. I am proud to say that even with all that we are going through, it had made us even closer. Still at such a young age, he has gone through so much and I will always be there for him. The following group of memories show my struggles and my acceptance of who my brother is and part of why I love him. Continue reading
Welcome to our fifth installment of “Queer Clergy in Action,” spotlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rabbis and cantors. This behind-the-scenes look at queer clergy covers both those who have paved the way and up-and-coming trailblazers. Here, we interview Rabbi Elliot Kukla.
Coming out can be really difficult and it can be especially risky for those who are, or aspire to be, clergy. Nonetheless, this vanguard has helped open up the Jewish world, and we’re very proud to shine an extra light on their work, their ideas, and their stories. You can also read the first four posts in this series, about Rabbi Steve Greenberg, Rabbi Reuben Zellman, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, and Rabbi Denise Eger.
How has being LGBTQ informed your work as a rabbi?
I work in a team of four rabbis at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, providing spiritual care to those struggling with grieving, illness, or dying, and I also direct the Healing Center’s hospice spiritual care volunteer program. The experience of being a transgender and queer person with a body and life trajectory outside of mainstream expectations is what led me to this work. I don’t consider being queer or trans a form of illness, but for me, being transgender and building a queer family and community has theological implications that also impact the way I respond to illness and aging. If we really embrace the idea that all of our various genders and desires were created in the image of God, we must believe that God wants and needs difference. This means that all bodies as they stretch, sag, shrink, grow, age and heal are divine; and all phases in the life cycle are holy and deserve sacred attention and care. Continue reading
The Torah is strewn with transgendered hearts.
How can that be true? The Torah, as we know, is not written for or about transgender people, and in any case, “transgender” is supposed to be a noun or adjective, not a verb, an umbrella term for the millions of people whose gender identity or expression is more complicated than “male” or “female.” “Transgender” gathers gender-complicated people into a broad, simple category – the equivalent of “African American” or “Latino” – and implies that our identities, like those of other minorities, are a matter of fact that is not up for discussion. But though “transgender” has real advantages for describing ourselves to others, for many of us who identify as transgender, identity is an often-messy, ongoing process, not a simple, settled fact. For me, “transgender” isn’t just something I am – it is an active, terrifying, exalting process of unmaking and remaking a self that will never quite fit established categories of gender or identity. Continue reading
They invented the term 100% trans Jewcore, and as Schmekel they are rocking our world! Keshet caught up with the members of the band – Lucian Kahn, Ricky Riot, Nogga Schwartz, and Simcha Halpert-Hanson – to talk about musical influences, what they’d love to see in the Jewish world, and what the heck “Jewcore” is, after all. We’re bringing you a longer post than usual, but you know what they say: one band, four Jews, lots and lots of opinions!
RR: “Jewcore” loosely refers to anything within the rock realm that has Jewish influences. It is a description that makes sense for us in this fortunate era of complicated genre classification. For me, the Jewish part of it is liturgical and other traditional tunes, and Israeli songs. As of a little more recently, I’ve been listening to klezmer bands, like the Klezmatics. The rock part of it is pretty eclectic. I listen to some classic rock, like the Doors and Jimi Hendrix, and as of more recently punk bands like the Dead Kennedys and Limp Wrist - yes I know, I got into punk way after the fact. I also like the Israeli riot grrrl bands Hamachshefot (The Witches) and Poliana Frank. The artists whom I would actually call influences though, meaning ones I have listened to long ago enough for them to be considered an influence, are the Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Sleater-Kinney, the Distillers, the Smiths, and They Might Be Giants. But oddly enough, I grew up on showtunes and most of my music collection consists of jazz.
SHH: I think we all collectively came up with the term “Jewcore” as a way to describe our sound to inquiring minds. Our community in Brooklyn has coined the term “Transcore” to refer to bands like ours that have all trans* members and sing about trans* experience, so we just took that to the Jew level. That asterisk, by the way, denotes that the word “trans” in this context does not just mean “transsexual” but all folks that identify under the “transgender” umbrella – there’s great information here. I use the term “Jewcore” to reflect the unlikely combination of Jewishness with punk rock, rap, or hardcore – like what Schmekel does or what our friends Yiddish Princess does or what Moshiach Oi or SoCalled does. When you think “Jewish music,” you don’t think the kind of sound that we or the other bands I mentioned make.
In terms of influences, I love bands that think outside of the genre-box that they’re categorized in, like Against Me!, the Dresden Dolls, Modest Mouse, and Tool. I think it’s artists like those – that play with genre and keep genre flexible, that produce really interesting and ever-relevant sounds.
NS: I don’t know who came up with the term “Jewcore.” I have referenced our sound as queercore, transcore, and “yidcore.” Lucian has used the term Schtickrock to describe us as well. I guess it doesn’t matter what you call it really. Our music is influenced by a large catalog from punk to polka, klezmer, and even some good ole rock and roll. Our lyrics talk about our experience as queer, trans* Jews. I would say that that more or less can define some aspect of “Jewcore.” My personal influences come from classic rock and lots of punk and ska, I could list some here but it hurts my head to think of all the bands and musicians I pull from.
Can we talk for a moment about the infamous matza photo shoot with Amos Mac? What was that like? What were the responses – in general and, you know, from your mothers?
LTK: Dirty jokes are the matzoh meal that holds my family together, so even my grandma laughed at the pictures. Actually, she’s a psychologist and used to be a sex educator back in the ‘70s, so it’s hard to shock her with something as innocuous as a bunch of half-naked Jews covered in unleavened bread. As for the rest of the world, I was surprised that some of our fans interpreted those pictures as sexy. In fact, The Advocate called us sexy and reprinted one of the matzoh shots. Personally, I was going for ridiculous. Is sex really a viable option when there are dry crumbs involved?
RR: I’m sure my parents have seen these pictures but we never mentioned them. Honestly they do scare me a little because my other career is teaching, so I just hope they don’t get into the wrong hands. But hey, you live once; how many people can say they posed naked for an international magazine with matzohs?
NS: I felt like a schnitzel by the end of that shoot. Before we did the matzoh photo, we took a photo of Ricky pouring wine into my mouth and I got covered in it. Then we rolled around in matzoh… plus the lights, I was ready to be served. On the plus side, my boyfriend really enjoys the picture.
SHH: I have to admit I was pushing a lot of my boundaries posing for that shoot – there were more than a few moments with that picture in particular in which I felt, exposure-wise, like I was at the gyno. We all sang Echad Mi Yodeah [Who Knows One, a traditional Passover song] for most of that photo, to loosen up (of course). The shoot was in a massive warehouse with dividers between studios, so the entire first floor heard us singing about knowing one G-d, two tablets, etc. It was a unifying moment for me with the band — being stark naked on the floor with matzoh shards, singing about HaShem.
I’ve heard you’ve been upset after certain interviews that focus more on your bodies then your music. Do you get tired of educating the public on gender issues?
LTK: To be honest, at this point I just find it boring, which is actually a privilege. I’ve been pretty much done with physical transition for over two years, and I’ve been with the same boyfriend for almost as long, so I don’t have to think about the fact of my trans body on a daily basis anymore. It still comes up in random ways, such as dealing with doctors or bureaucratic paperwork, but since I’ve mostly come to peace with my body, I don’t feel like talking about it all the time. I’m definitely at a different place now than I was when I wrote the lyrics for the “Queers On Rye” album.
RR: Yes. I get tired of it both with the public as a performer, and as a regular person. I also happen to occasionally do some educating at LGBT Jewish retreats and I don’t mind educating in a time and place where that is the intended goal. I just don’t like being asked about my body in a casual social setting, or when press is more interested in our transitions than our music.
NS: The focus that many non-trans people put on trans and gender non-conforming bodies is sometimes overwhelming. As Ricky said, when there is a time and a place, sure we can talk about it. We are people also and do other stuff. In this case we are a band that performs and plays music about many subjects besides our bodies.
This happens, unfortunately, within the queer community as well as out in the general public.
I recognize that I will forever have to qualify myself to people who have never before met a trans* person and that until olam haba [the world to come] becomes olam hazeh [this world], educating will be a fact of life, but I am especially tired of teaching specifically transmen about why I’m not one of them and qualifying the existence of genderqueer as a separate gender. It’s really disheartening to me that so many trans* people have internalized the sexism and binary mentality that made it difficult for them to realize themselves to begin with.
Can you discuss the queer Jewish music scene? Where can people go to find new bands and artists?
RR: The Shondes, Athens Boys Choir, Y-Love, Isle of Klezbos, Metropolitan Klezmer, Yiddish Princess, Gay Panic, GLTR PNCH (pronounced “Glitter Punch”), and Evan Greer are all great artists to check out. And I’m sure I could name more if you give me some time. Some of those are queer and Jewish, some just queer, some just Jewish. Where to go is wherever they are playing.
NS: There is an amazing NYC/Brooklyn queer and queer Jewish music scene. Multiple nights a week one can find a venue playing rad music .
SHH: I feel really lucky to live in New York City and be inside what I consider the pulse of queer Jewish music. The big names in klezmer — the Yiddishist scene in general tends to feel pretty queer — are all here playing in synagogue basements and concert venues around the city. A lot of Jews For Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) events, like their annual Purimschpiel, bring in queer Yiddishist artists and klezmorim. As far as how to find out about new bands and artists, I’ve found Facebook groups an immensely helpful tool to get to know my community and all the innovation happening in it. Currently, I belong to Young Jewish Brooklyn, Brooklyn Jews, Thursday Night Chulent, Trans* and Judaism, and Punk Jews and all of these groups in one way or another have turned me onto artists and musicians I hadn’t previously heard of touring both across the country and around NYC.
I’d love to get more personal about what being a part of Schmekel means to you – to be making music as part of a Jewish gender non-conforming group.
LTK: If we’re getting personal, to me being part of Schmekel means having three siblings to rock out, celebrate the holidays, get through hard times, go on road trips, and joke around with. Schmekel is home to me, which is probably not a sentence that a lot of people have uttered.
RR: This didn’t start out as a political statement, but Jewish trans visibility is certainly important. Mostly, I like making the kinds of music I like and singing from a queer perspective at the same time. And also everything Lucian said.
NS: Ditto to what Ricky and Lucian said. I am not actually a musician at all… I picked up the bass for the first time in 10 years to get to make music with these folks. Ricky and I were in a band when we were 17. It kinda sucked in that awesome high school garage band way. I continued to always want to be a rockstar… but never thought of pursuing it, till Schmekel happened.
SHH: Schmekel to me has been an experience of pushing myself to take my art and my identity in two presently disparate groups seriously. It has been a process of coming together with three other people with varying degrees of shared experiences in the Jewish world and in the trans* world and working together to build bridges with each other and others around us. It’s been an amazing opportunity to have come to such a family space with this band and to have seen the fruit of that relationship be a Yeshayahu-worthy vision of Jewish unity across religious convictions and personal identities.
Given, amongst all of you, your many and varied experiences of inclusion and exclusion in Jewish community: what would you like rabbis, teachers, and other leaders, to know?
NS: Hold the judgement. It is the purpose of people in leadership positions to help facilitate a supportive environment and assist those in search of a relationship with community and G-d. It is not their, or any other person’s, place to judge or dictate how one should pursue their path. Leaders and teachers and rabbis are there to present halacha, discuss, assist, and support. Not to shut down, excommunicate or pressure an individual in any specific direction. Also, take the time to educate yourself: it is hard to self-advocate all the time. When someone is coming to you, they are probably coming for support and guidance, and it is worth it to be in the know about what the community needs are to better help.
RR: That gender is complicated. I would love for rabbis to read some gender theory books and talk to queer and trans people and the doctors and therapists who deal with us, and formulate an informed opinion about how they want to define gender. There is a movement of acknowledging gender in Judaism as a social category and not just a biological one among halakhically committed Jews, and that movement also has insightful things to say that I would love for other rabbis to check out. Let’s face it, our existence presents a challenge to their observance. It also presents a choice to either take the easy route and dismiss our experiences and insist that our queer and trans identities aren’t real, or do the work that it takes to keep us Jewish and to keep us safe and emotionally healthy. They don’t need to compromise their religious practice, but the Jewish thing to do would be to learn about our experiences and respect us as human beings. I would like for teachers to know that teachers often gender-police their students without being aware of it, and it is damaging. I encourage them too to educate themselves about the experiences of their queer and trans students.
SSH: I would like Jewish leaders to know that kol yisroel arevim zebazeh [all Jews are responsible for one another] applies to all Jews everywhere and that “Jew,” thank G-d, comes in many profoundly different manifestations — all of them Torah sanctified. Education — Trans* 101 workshops, learning about queer sexuality, patriarchal oppression as well as how gender is a mutable idea rather than a static fact — has to be a priority to understand each other. HaShem put us all together as Am Yisrael — the idea that the mere existence of one Jew invalidates the existence of another is not a productive way to bring about the messianic era and will only deter the healing that klal yisrael [the entire Jewish community] was created to bring about for the world.
You can catch Schmekel at:
Werk Those Pecs: Valentine’s Edition
Saturday, February 16th, 2013
SlateNY, 54 W. 21st St.
Doors at 9pm
A benefit for Werk Those Pecs, an organization dedicated to raising trans visibility by funding gender-affirming surgery, supporting queer businesses, and showcasing queer artists.