In the Recording Studio With Schmekel, the Transgender Jewish Punk Band
As they produce ‘The Whale That Ate Jonah,’ members dish about Chabad, circumcision, and the time they performed in an S&M dungeon
Emily Aviva Kapor, the only out transgender female rabbi, agreed with Ladin that trans Jews are raising “very nuanced, complicated questions, and you can’t hand-wave them away by saying, well, of course we’re inclusive!” Trans Jews are forcing leaders to reevaluate how we determine whether a person is considered male or female within the framework of Jewish law. “Let’s say we have a women’s mikveh: Would a trans woman be welcome there who has not had genital surgery? What if she can’t afford it?” Kapor asked, adding that we still lack rabbinic responses that are empowering of trans people—though she herself is working to rectify that. “We need to create liturgy that is affirmative of trans people, and ritual that celebrates experiences in the lives of trans people. For instance, what’s the blessing for when you take your hormones every day?”
Ladin and Kapor both believe Schmekel—a band that bills itself as “100% trans Jews”—is laughing with the tradition in a way that helps advance that process, creating a world where one can be 100 percent trans and 100percent Jewish without fearing that those identities are mutually exclusive.
It’s a belief that was borne out by a passing comment Halpert-Hanson made right before I left the studio, when I mentioned the Barnard show where I’d first seen them play. Calling that concert “very communal and cute,” the drummer noted that the band has played a wide range of venues, “from an actual S&M dungeon to right in front of an ark in Yale’s Hillel.” Laughing, Kahn interjected that somewhere between an S&M dungeon and a place of worship was probably ideal for them, venue-wise. But Halpert-Hanson pushed back on that notion: “I actually do personally enjoy playing in front of the Torah. Just for the sake of driving home the discrepancy that we seem to play on so heavily—being transgender, which is not an accepted gender identity in institutional mainstream Jewland. We’re mashing these things together and marrying them—and acting that out by playing in front of the Torah.”
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In the Talmud, examples of real-life rabbinic behavior and the intensely personal nature of lawmaking