I was moved by a story I heard on NPR last week. Krista Tippet, host of NPR’s show “On Being,” spoke with Joy Ladin, Professor of English at Stern College of Yeshiva University, is the author of Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, and has also published five books of poetry.
Joy shared her story candidly, in the interview and an accompanying photo essay. She also shared insights such as the following question posed to her, and the life-altering answer (and subsequent questions) that followed:
‘“Did anyone ever teach you to be true to yourself?’ a therapist once asked me. I had come to her in the midst of what I call my gender crisis — the physical, mental, and emotional breakdown I experienced after 40-plus years of living as the male I knew I wasn’t. I had just told her about my shame about hiding for decades my lifelong sense that I was female. Having failed to keep faith with my own gender identity, how could I now break my covenant with my wife, my children, and all who knew me as a man?”
This interview aired only a week or so before the ISJL’s Education Conference. At the conference this year, we had a keynote session for all participants, with five brave panelists willing to lead the conversation about privilege, and how privilege manifests itself in life generally and in Jewish communal life in particular. We discussed privilege and assumptions in terms of poverty, physical ability, mental illness, sexual identity, race – the wide range of ways in which some are granted privilege in our society while others are stigmatized or overlooked.
There are many privileges associated with having a gender identity that matches the gender assigned to us by society at birth. Many of us have the privilege of going about our daily lives without having to hide our gender identity from the people who are closest to us. For those of us who have been given this privilege, it is hard to imagine what it must be like to live a life in which we own one gender identity but seek to live the life of another.
Joy was afraid to reveal her true self to her students – students at Yeshiva University, a community primarily comprised of religious Jews. To her surprise, when she finally did tell them that she identified a woman and wanted to live as such, some of her students were most upset not by this revelation but by the fact up until that moment, she had been deceiving them. By living as a man, she had betrayed their trust. It is uplifting to know that it was of utmost importance to Joy’s students that Joy live as Joy; it is sad to imagine that Joy may have been tormented by the possibility that her students would reject her. The students’ true response, which surprised Joy with its level of acceptance, demonstrates that it is not sufficient to be accepting and welcoming, quietly. If people don’t know that we are understanding people, people will not have an easy time being who they are around us. If Joy knew that the culture around her was more accepting, perhaps she would have revealed her true self earlier and with less fear.
One question that emerges after listening to this interview is: How can Jewish institutions and congregations communicate a genuine interest in celebrating the diversity of the Jewish people? How can we encourage people—ourselves and people who fear coming out of hiding–to be as Joy says our “truest selves”? How can we support one another as we go about our “lifelong work of being at home in ourselves?”
We started some great conversation on this topic at the education conference, and we would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
What makes our home Southern and Jewish? If you were blindfolded and brought into my home, it wouldn’t take you five minutes to understand that I am a proud Southern Jew.
I recently got married; my husband is not Jewish – nor does he claim any religion. Over the last several years, he has grown to respect and appreciate my Reform Judaism, and has enjoyed being a part of our Jewish traditions and community, a community which has welcomed him in with open arms. Together, we are creating a new Jewish home.
When we moved into our new home, we joyously went about displaying all of the things we love. With boxes unpacked one of the first things we did was to hang our mezuzzot. Like Jews around the world, “the door posts of our home” bear the first sign that ours is a Jewish home. Because my husband pays attention, he asked me a great question:
“Why aren’t we putting a mezzuzah on our gates?”
The answer: a mezuzah is placed where there is a ceiling and two doorposts; most of our modern day gates do not have ceilings, and so there is no requirement to place one “upon your gates.” A great question!
Beyond the mezuzzot, we have many Jewish symbols that would likely be found in any Jewish home across the world, including our Shabbat candle sticks and the Kiddush cup and kippot from our wedding. On the dining wall is a poster of an IDF soldier praying at the wall; beside that, we have a signed and numbered print entitled Shabbat Cotton, which embodies both Southern and Jewish beauty. I also have on display mementos from serving as President of Temple Sinai of New Orleans, and a beautiful menorah from the mayor of our sister city in Israel, Rosh Ha’ayin, given to me on the occasion of stepping down as chair of Partnership 2000.
Adding to the Southern-ness, there’s a den wall displaying my prized Mardi Gras posters (I’m a New Orleans native), and there is a Texas star from my husband’s home state, and of course, several fleur de lis! As they say, New Orleans Jews really are different than any other Jews in the world, because we live in Parishes and pray for Saints (the state of Louisiana is divided into Parishes instead of Counties because of its French and Catholic roots, and our beloved football team is the New Orleans Saints).
Enjoy a little photo-tour of our home, and a little taste of our own personal Southern Jewish life. After all, what really makes our home Southern and Jewish?
We live in it!
As many people know, I’ll be leaving my post at the ISJL next week to pursue a Ph.D. in American Studies. The last four years have been amazing for me, personally, professionally and academically, and I know I’m going to miss the city of Jackson and the ISJL office.
My last big project here has been a series of three short videos about Jewish life in Ashland, Kentucky, which were commissioned by the Kaplan Simons Family Foundation. I’m proud and excited to share these videos today:
Huge thanks to all of the participants, the families who shared photographs with me and especially the Boyd County Public Library, where many of the interviews were conducted.